CHRISTMASTIDE – A time for Christ to be reborn in us

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer, Amen.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

Just like the ones I used to know

Where the treetops glisten and children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write

‘May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white’

My apologies if I have now infected you with a mind worm that will see this song playing ceaselessly in your head for the rest of today.

The Guinness Book of Records reports that Bing Crosby’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ holds the record as the best-selling single of all time, with over 50 million copies sold. Bing Crosby sang the song in the 1943 film ‘Holiday Inn’ where it won the Academy Award for the best original song. You probably know the film with its beautiful scenes of snow falling. What you may not know is that within the scene of celluloid beauty and serenity where snowflakes softly fell on Bing Crosby, there was a diabolical reality. That was not snow falling on the crooner, it was white asbestos.

I don’t know what the final toll filming that scene and others that used such toxic snow took upon the cast or crew; but there is something disturbingly ironic about such a juxtaposition of a dream of hope that one’s days may be merry and bright against such dreadful, dark reality of how the film was made; all this against a backdrop of a profound community yearning, deep in the midst of a world war, that would push sales of the song to record-breaking levels. Not just in that time, but ever since the contest between the Christmas truth and the world’s has played itself out in many other ways that also seem a conflict between divine hope and worldly darkness; with the result that we seem to be surrounded by two Christmases – the true and the faux.

This is the first Sunday of Christmastide, a liturgical season which starts not with Advent Sunday in early December, but with Vespers on Christmas Eve, reflected in our tradition by the arrival of the baby Jesus in the nativity creche at the Midnight Mass three days ago. The season will run for the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, finishing on January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

During Advent and Christmastide you will have received and wished many ‘Merry Christmases’; there is something very apt about the phrase Merry Christmas that should not disturb us for a perceived lack of religiosity, for the word ‘merry’ has not always had the implication of mere frolic with perhaps even an occasional sense of inebriation for it came from Anglo-Saxon origins with the meaning of ‘gallant’, ‘illustrious’ or ‘mighty’. If you doubt me, think about the carol refrain: ‘God rest ye merrie gentlemen’ or even Robin Hood’s band of merrie men; in both cases merrie in purely modern senses doesn’t work. Furthermore, in the King James’ Bible the word assumed the idea of meritorious joy, hear the words from that version’s parable of the prodigal son:

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. [Luke 15:32]

So, wishing one Merry Christmas has, in the archaic sense, not only an intention of wholesomeness, even perhaps holiness but also joyousness. The modern sense of ‘merry’ may have lost both the wholesomeness and holiness but still retains the spirit of joyousness – in modern parlance it suggests ‘have a good one’ – and so I do wish that your Christmas may not only have been wholesome and holy, but that it may also have been also a time of having had ‘a good one’ with family and friends. I know that for us as a family, after many months of separation from our children and grand-children, including two who were born during the period of COVID-19 restrictions, this Christmas has been a very merry one indeed, in both archaic and modern senses of the word.

Of course, there are other ways of proclaiming such an exultant message at the season of celebrating Christ’s birth. In the Orthodox tradition, for example, the natal blessing used is: Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε [Christos gennatai, doxasate] – Christ is born, glorify Him! It is an acclamation that, along with Christos anesti, bookends the incarnation of Jesus, from his birth to his Resurrection. The acclamation is the opening line of an Orthodox Christmas hymn whose first verse is:

Christ is born; glorify Him!

Christ comes from heaven; go to meet Him!

Christ is on earth; be exalted!

Sing to the Lord, all the earth!

And praise Him in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified!

Elias Bagas, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, describes the import of this verse thus:

The hymn calls us to act in a very conscious and decisive manner. As Christians we live our Faith and witness it to the world through our gladness and joy; like the single light burning brightly in the darkness.

Putting it another way, it invites us to reflect upon the idea that we may be the only Christmas some non-believers may ever see – that we may be a single light that may burn brightly in the darkness of their life. Thinking about it this way causes me to pause and ask myself the question: this Christmastide has my expression of Christmas been a light to those for whom no other expression of the miracle and blessing of the nativity may have been apparent? Or might my Christmassing have cast a shadow, preventing them seeing the true light of Christmas?

I will return to this theme in a moment; but first I want to focus on a tendency for Christians sometimes to be more concerned about beam in the eye of another. As Christians we can too easily fall victim to a feeling of some self-righteous sense of injury in the face of some of the world’s treatment of Christmas; for example, we may lament that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ has been devalued both by the cohorts of rampant commercialism and fundamentalist secularism. We may feel that commercialism has gone beyond the pale and desecrated the example of the fourth century Saint Nicholas, who himself has been morphed into the modern Santa of Coca-Cola’s invention. Or fundamentalist secularism which seems bent on editing out any vestige of faith from the yuletide emblems – a Jingle Bell jihad against O Holy Night that would seek to remove religious carols from schools for example.

Certainly, there is justification for concern at pressure to remove the ‘reason for the season’ from Christmas; and it has been heartening to see a return of significant Christian symbols in the public space such as the nativity scene at the foot of the City Council’s Christmas Tree this year in Victoria Square and the public airing of Christian carols in Rundle Mall. However, my point is that, in highlighting the beam in the commercial and secular eyes of Christmas, we may too easily use this as an excuse to overlook the beam in our own – about the Christmas we have portrayed to others.

Adam Ericksen of the Raven Foundation has written:

… the best way to defend against the real war on Christmas is not to become offended and raise our voices against the ‘secularists’ agenda’. No, the best way to defend Christmas is to care about the things that Jesus cared about.

What did Jesus care about; or rather, what does Jesus care about? There are many gospel references but I think this verse from James sums up best what Jesus cared and cares about:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. [James 1:27]

In other words, service through love towards another; as James put it elsewhere in his epistle:

Faith apart from works is barren. [3:20]

This is not good works as the world does, but a sublimation of ourselves to the will of God through Christ Jesus – to incarnate him in our own hearts so that we become his hands and feet in service. Eriksen quotes Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands. Yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes. You are his body.

The world’s Christmas is a hollow affair, we may rail against it but deep within its hollowness is an unconscious yearning for the Christ-child, for the touch of God upon a hurting world. How can I say this? The story of Christ’s incarnation as told in John’s gospel affirms that God responded to an unconscious yearning from the hollow world of two thousand years ago by being a light to a world caught in its own darkness:

What has come into beingin him was life and the life was the light of all people.The light shines in the darkness, [John 1: 3b-5a]

And in our reading from Luke’s gospel, we hear Simeon say of God incarnate through Jesus:

My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel. [2:30-32]

Our reading from Galatians talks about God’s spirit within us leading us to cry out ‘Abba! Father!’ [4:6]. This crying out of ‘Abba! Father!’ was not just intended to be a private conversation between us and God, but to be through us, an instrument of Jesus’ ‘light to all people’.

In other words, this Christmastide season when we celebrate each year the birth of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus the hope of the world – is also a time when we are asked to consider how has Jesus been born anew within each of us such that we feel ourselves to be the eyes of Jesus, seeing a hurting world; the feet of Jesus, walking towards that world; and the hands of Jesus reaching out to it.

Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε [Christos gennatai, doxasate] – Christ is born, let us glorify Him by his rebirth in us!