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Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas is not for children

Christmas is not for children. This observation seems at odds with the sights and sounds that have blitzed our senses in the shopping malls over the past few weeks, with children lining up for photos with Santa Claus and suggestions of both the cute and the glitzy manger scenes. 

The source of our confusion and our inability to grasp this reality lies in the fact that the Christian Church's celebration of the feast of the Incarnation has become completely overlaid by a celebration of family driven by the unrelenting consumer logic of late capitalism. Christmas for us is about family, therefore becomes centred on children, creating an immense source of pain for those whose families are dysfunctional, those who are single and separated.

A look at the readings for the Christmas service that I attended in Canberra yesterday will start to make the point about how little the whole festival is about family, middle class selection and generally having a good time. The reading in the lectionary for the Old Testament for Christmas morning strikes quite a different note:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7 ESV)

This is an account about politics and government. The debris of warfare and battle will be burned up and destroyed and what we are to look for beyond that is one who will bring a reign of peace, characterised by justice and righteousness. This is  a perspective that is supposed to frame the discussion of the Gospel reading in Luke 2 on Christmas morning, but I suspect usually doesn't. It certainly didn't at the church service I attended. The passage takes away any excuse for a sentimental account of the significance of the birth of Jesus and places it in a context of empire and exile.

As it is if you manage to ignore the political frame of God's project for the achievement of peace and justice in Isaiah, the account of the birth of Jesus in Luke Chapter 2 opens with a clear account of the political context. Debra Dean Murphy from the Ekklesia Project makes this very clear in her lectionary reflections on this passage:

In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.   
We can miss this, of course, and often do – especially when we rush to the later, more palatable and more accessible passages of Luke’s narrative. The Christmas pageant version of verses 8 through 14, for instance, has long colonized our imagination, with toddlers in bathrobes and bed sheets, coat-hanger halos on their wee heads.
But as Dorothee Soelle once observed, “the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha.” The terror of the shepherds was real and, as those among the poorest of the poor, the glad tidings they received from the angels (in whatever form these heavenly messengers appeared to them) signalled something of the radical politics of the infant king and his own future dealings, as one among the poorest of the poor, with the imperial powers.(The Logic of the Incarnation)

Tom Wright spells out the contrast between two kingdoms that Luke sketches in his account of the birth of Jesus:
Luke's scene ceases to be a romantic pastoral idyll, with the rustic shepherds paying homage to the infant King. It becomes a clear statement of two kingdoms destined to compete, kingdoms that offer radically different definitions of what peace and power and glory are all about. 
Here is the old king in Rome, turning 60 in the year Jesus was born: he represents perhaps the best that pagan kingdoms can do. At least he knows that peace and stability are good things; unfortunately, he has had to kill a lot of people to bring them about, and to kill a lot more, on a regular basis, to preserve them. 
Unfortunately, too, his real interest is in his own glory. Already, before his death, many of his subjects have begun to regard him as divine.
Here, by contrast, is the young King in Bethlehem, born with a price on his head. He represents the dangerous alternative, the possibility of a different empire, a different power, a different glory, a different peace. The two stand over against one another.
Augustus's empire is like a well-lit room at night: the lamps are arranged beautifully, they shed pretty patterns, but they have not conquered the darkness outside. Jesus' kingdom is like the morning star rising, signalling that it is time to blow out the candles, to throw open the curtains, and to welcome the new day that is dawning. Glory to God in the highest-and peace among those with whom he is pleased!
You see the two empires squared off against each other toward the end of John's gospel, when Pilate confronts Jesus with two questions: Don't you know that I have the power to have you killed? And, what is truth? That is the language of kingdom, power and glory that the world knows.The Most Dangerous Baby
Why Samuel Wells ponders do we turn Christmas,  into an event that is really just for children? After all ... 
 this is a story about political oppression, harsh taxes, displaced people, homelessness, unemployment, vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers. That's the danger of performing it in a place like Delhi and having it acted out by adults who themselves know the very real possibility of any or all of these realities. We might have to recognize what it's really about.
And the truth is, we don't want to think about such realities. We don't want to think that our own political system and the demands of our own economy could have comparable effects on far-flung places to those brought about by the Roman Empire and its client regimes all those years ago.
We don't want the cozy Christmas story besmirched by such tawdry human and political realities. We don't want to spoil things by thinking of the oppressed - and more than that we absolutely can't face the possibility that we might be counted among the oppressors.
So we get youngsters to perform our nativity plays. We talk about how magical this season is. We say "Christmas is really for the children." How ... convenient. Christmas is really for Grown-Ups
If it is for children we can then evade all the hard and the difficult questions that follow if we read it for the hard disturbing tale that it is. We are then faced with the call to discipleship, the call to follow, to become people who are on the Way, no longer at ease with the world in which we are so deeply invested. And we in our churches provide a chaplaincy service to a society, giving a religious veneer with our affirmation of the importance of family and personal generosity to those who live and work on the margins every day of the year.

I got given this year the DVD of the movie Of Gods and Men, the disturbing story of the monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria who made the choice to stay and accompany the people in the local village in the midst of a dirty war between the Army and Islamist guerrillas. This story I think provides a parable of the Incarnation, of the costly choice of identification with the pain and brokenness of the world. As a parable of the Incarnation it makes it clear why Christmas is for grown-ups and not for children.

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