Is it still possible for a country like Australia to celebrate Christmas? You may have picked up that there has been a debate going on around the fringes of the media over the last few weeks about this very question.
Of course it has come to prominence through a series of other more down to earth questions, like –should there be Christmas trees in public spaces? And if there are Christmas trees should there be nativity scenes? And if there are nativity scenes do they need to have around them scenes from other religious traditions as well? But whatever the actual questions which the media and politicians have been addressing, the heart of the issue has been whether this country of Australia is able to celebrate Christmas anymore.
During a cursory glance through one of our newspapers the other week, I spotted a letter to the editor from a woman who was complaining that although there were Christmas Carols playing in the airport in Malaysia (which is not a Christian country), there was no such festive greeting on her arrival back in Perth. No carols, no Christmas tree, no celebrations at Perth airport. And in an interview on the radio on Thursday a member of a Salvation Army band relayed the instructions which he had been given by a shopping complex to play only tunes which related to Father Christmas, and none of the usual Christmas carols – the Christian songs which rejoice in the birth of Jesus. It has been far easier this year to find in our shops an Advent calendar which counts down the days to today with pop stars or with various accessories for our Christmas tree, than it has been to find an Advent calendar which tells the story of the coming of the Son of God. This confusion about what we celebrate today, can be summed up in the image which appeared in a Japanese shop window a few years ago, trying to appeal to Western shoppers which portrayed a life size Father Christmas nailed to a cross! Talk about getting the story wrong!
Well, I did undertake a quick survey yesterday of two of the shopping centres in our area – at Warwick and at Whitfords, and both contained not only Father Christmas and a Christmas tree, but a nativity scene as well, depicting the visit of the wise men to Jesus with his mother and Joseph.
So as we ponder this question about Christmas in Australian culture, there is at least in our locality some hope for its survival! But having said that, there are significant elements in our Australian society which are calling us to be more “politically correct” about how we celebrate Christmas, and whilst we have seen an increase in this debate this year, it has been around for a long time. The subtle changing of “Christmas” to “Xmas” for example has been going on for many years, and has now reached monumental proportions where it is possible to send Christmas cards with no mention of Christmas, or even Xmas at all. We received a card here at Church from one of the Government departments in Perth. On the front it reads “Season’s Greetings,” with an aboriginal painting entitled “Aqua Dream,” and inside the printed words simply say “Season’s greetings and best wishes for the new year.” Not a word about Christmas at all! What greetings did the Christmas cards which you sent this year say to those who received them? What are you able to do during the rest of today as you meet with family and friends to point people back to the first Christmas, rather than to the consumerism of our present age?
My guess is that there are some very good reasons for this secular take-over of the Christmas festival. One of them is that we are glad to live in a
multi-cultural society where people from all religions are welcome to live in peace alongside each other. That great gift for all of us in Australia. But I don’t hear complaints from leaders of other religious traditions about the celebration of Christmas, in fact I hear other religious leaders welcoming distinctive Christmas festivities, in a society where we are also committed to providing space for other traditions to celebrate their festivals as well. So whilst that may be the reason that we hear from some politicians – about being sensitive to others – it is more likely, that the root cause of our society’s indifference to the Christmas story is that we have lost confidence in its reality, in its power, in its hope. Its more likely that the reason for the migration of Christmas to a festival celebrating something quite different, is that people no longer know the Christmas story.
Again, another reporter on the radio invited passers-by in the last week, to say what they believed about Christmas. Of course the segment was edited to ensure that a broad range of views were put forward, but they included those who said that they believed that the story was true, those who said that it was important but not true, like a “fairy story,” and those who said that it was complete rubbish but a good excuse for a party. My guess is that if we looked around our parish, all those views and more would be reflected in the lives of our local community here in Greenwood. How do you respond to the Christmas story, what does it mean for you?
Sociologists and psychologists remind us of the essential need for people to have opportunities to have a break from the fast moving momentum of their normal lives, and to have the chance to feel a part of a family or of a community. We hear the proposition that the most important thing about Christmas is that it gives people the time to relax and to be with their families, and to feel that they do all of this as a part of a wider community of people who are also enjoying themselves. That is why one county in England has suggested that Christmas should be renamed “Winterval,” as a winter time celebration; and why in America we increasingly hear the title “Yuletide,” and why here in Australia we hear this non-descript title of “Season” slowly replacing Christmas. Is that why we are here this morning? To re-capture some nostalgia from the past? To feel connected to a community? To celebrate the fact that we have a few days off from work and our normal routine? Is that what Christmas has become for us here in Australia? Or (whilst all of those things might be good products of Christmas) is Christmas about something much more?
I was reading the other day a biography of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who was one of the most prolific Christian thinkers of the Twentieth Century. During one of his many lecturing tours, this time in America, he was invited to speak at the University of Chicago Divinity School. During that lecture Barth became quite unwell and so when he finished, the President of the college asked that rather than being deluged with a whole series of questions by those in the audience (which was the normal custom), that only one question should be asked of him, so that the session could be finished and so that he could go off to bed. And the question that was chosen was this: “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?” That’s a great question to ask someone who has penned literally thousands of pages of writing about God and the Christian tradition. Karl Barth, so the story goes, closed his tired eyes, thought for a moment, and then half smiling opened his eyes again and said to the questioner: “The greatest theological insight I have ever had is this: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” The words of a well known Sunday School song from a past age: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
‘Well, that’s a nice story, but what has it got to do with Christmas?’ I hear you ask! Let me tell you! At the heart of the Christmas story we find this incredible assertion that God so loved the world that he sent his Son so that we might share in the eternal life of his love. At the heart of the Christmas story we find a baby who embodies for us the love of God. A baby who is the hope for the whole world. God loves us, this we know, for the story of Christmas – the birth of Jesus – tells us so; and in a few moments time we will bring to baptism another baby, not the Son of God, but the daughter of Andrew and Jenny. And this is a great day to bring Courtney for baptism. As we celebrate the new life and new love of God which comes to us in the baby Jesus, we know that some of that love, and hope comes to us too in Courtney as well.
“Behold,” says the angel. “I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all generations. For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That is the radical message of Christmas for us all: God loves you, and if you want to see that love most clearly, then you will find it in the life of Jesus in the Bible, and in the ongoing life of Jesus in the Church. The baby in the manger offers hope to us all. Because if this season is simply an opportunity for us to have a break from all of the things which we normally do, then we will find that once Christmas is over everything will remain as it was before. But if Christmas is really about the new birth of God’s love in the world, embodied in the baby Jesus, heralded by angels, and adored by shepherds, sought after by wise men, as he lays in the manger, then nothing for the whole world can ever be the same again. If it is true that God’s love was so fully in Jesus, and that even today it is being offered to each one of us, then everything is different, every possibility and hope is transformed.
Christmas begins today, it doesn’t end today. So as you go from here to do all the wonderful things which you have planned, and I hope that they truly are wonderful, don’t settle for a season which will pass very quickly, but choose Christmas above all of the other seasonal alternatives. Choose Jesus, the baby in the manger, who offers God’s love to us all.