Thursday, 24 December 2015

I Wonder If This Christmas...

When I was looking for Christmas songs for church earlier this month, I came across my words and chords for this little gospel music gem we used to sing way back in the early 1980s.

It's got a pretty, catchy tune and simple words, and it's easy for a ham guitarist like me to play.  Plus back in the day we were heavily into trying to convert people (not very successfully) and this song really tried hard to do that.

Here's the thing though.  It never struck me as odd that although it calls itself 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round' it's actually an Easter song.  Look at the words.

I wonder if this Christmas they'll begin to understand
The Jesus that they celebrate was much more than a man.
Cos the way the world is I don't see how people can deny
The only way to save us was for Jesus Christ to die.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would agree
That Jesus gave the greatest gift of all to you and me
They led him to the slaughter on a hill called Calvary
And mankind was forgiven when they nailed him to a tree.

But most of all the children, they're the ones I hope will learn
That Jesus is our saviour and he's going to return.
And Christmas isn't just a day, and all days aren't the same
Perhaps they'll think about the word and see it spells his name.

No angelic announcement, no stable, no manger, no magi, no virgin birth.  Sure St Nick gets a go, but even he has to travel without his reindeer and as for elves, well, best not to mention them.  Not a single line based on the New Testament stories of Jesus' birth, but no less than three lines about his death on the cross, not to mention one about the Second Coming.

Randy Stonehill is not alone.  This year I've been noticing how embarrassed many Christians are about Christmas.  Despite all the hoo har about the 'war on Christmas' we can't wait to skip forward to Easter.  Sure, we do sing some Christmas carols in December but they are almost always mixed with Easter songs right up until the day itself.  Our sermons, even on Christmas Day, keep slipping across to Easter as we feel obliged to remind people that the child in the manger became the man on the cross.  As soon as December 26 rolls around the Christmas carols are put back in the folder and normal service is resumed.

On the other hand, like Randy Stonehill we see Easter songs as being 'for all year round'.  In fact, this is so much the case that we don't even realise they are Easter songs.  We see nothing unusual in singing, say, 'The Mystery of the Cross' or 'The Servant King' at any time of year.  No-one would bat an eyelid if we sang these songs in December.  If I were to put 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' or 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night' on the program in April people would want to know what I was up to.

I've been so acculturated to this that I never noticed it until this year.  Now I have noticed it, however, I can't unsee it.

The thing is, our wider culture is much more excited about Christmas than the Christians.  Carols have been playing in our shops since October.  Decorations have been up in public places for weeks.  Australians have been indulging in their customary Christmas splurge of charitable donations and acts of mercy.  People have been buying gifts for one another and travelling across the country to be with loved ones on the special day.  Even in Buddhist Thailand the streets of central Bangkok are lit up for the season.  Our culture gets that Christmas is special, even as Christians are embarrassed by it.

So what's the problem?  Why don't Christians embrace Christmas more wholeheartedly?  Why don't we celebrate it all year round?

I think we are uncomfortable with the idea of incarnation.  We have come to live by a version of Christianity that is shaped and determined by Easter.  It is about sin and salvation, about atonement, about getting to heaven and avoiding hell, about our wellbeing in the next life.

In the process the spirituality of our present life which Christmas symbolises is increasingly neglected.  Christmas tells us a number of things that we struggle to hear.
  • It tells us that this life matters, that God is so intensely interested in it that he chose to live it himself.
  • It tells us that it is a glorious thing to be human, reminding us that we are made in the image of God and that despite our failings this image is still alive in us, ready to be healed.
  • It calls us to practical compassion.  Our mission is not merely to drag people out of this world and into heaven, but to continue the work Jesus began, creating a kingdom of heaven here on earth.
If Christmas sometimes seems worldly it is not because such worldliness is evil, it is because we have abandoned this world.  We have given up on it and focused our sights on the next.  This is just the opposite of what Jesus did.  He didn't come into the world simply to die for us, but to live for us.  As his death approached the thought of leaving this life behind caused him such distress that he sweated blood and begged God to find another way.

The fact that we are uncomfortable with this highlights the weakness of our faith.  If we only focus on Easter, it becomes easy for us to lack practical compassion.  We become blind to the need for it.  Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me", and conversely, "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".  This is the practical outworking of the incarnation, but in our Easter Christianity we find it so easy to to skip over this clear, simple message and use this parable as a weapon in our arguments over heaven and hell.

How is it that committed Christians can oversee our current punitive asylum seeker regime?  This is Easter Christianity with no Christmas.  How can church authorities be blind to the suffering of children abused in their care?  These are Christians who have forgotten that God was also a child.  How can we spend millions rebuilding our churches and cathedrals while there are beggars at our door?  It is because we have become blind to the fact that these beggars are God himself, pleading for our help.

So, with due respect and apologies to Mr Stonehill (who no doubt also has a more mature view 35 years on) I have attempted a rewrite of 'A Christmas Song for All Year Round'.

I wonder if this Christmas we'll begin to really see
The Jesus that we celebrate was just like you and me.
'Cos the way we set our face away from all God has to give
The only way to turn us was for Jesus Christ to live.

And I know that if St Nicholas was here he would proclaim
With hosts of angels, shepherds and the travelling wise men
The greatest sign in history that God is still our friend
Is a baby in a manger in the town of Bethlehem.

And all the children playing on this great and glorious day
And all the people mourning for the ones who've passed away
And every tiny sparrow, every single grain of sand
Are shown at their true value because God became a man.

Have a lovely Christmas and a compassionate beginning to 2016!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all your time and wrestling with how Christmas is so mixed up. You have excellently expressed issues for more thought, conviction and action in my own thoughts and life