The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

Morning Sermon


Who stole Christmas?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Today is the second Sunday in Advent, and so the second of the Advent Candles has been lit – this is the Candle of Faith in some traditions. Though it wasn’t part of our lectionary reading this morning, this passage from Galatians has come to mind:

But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. [3:22]

‘What was promised through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe’ – Faith and Belief. It takes faith to believe and believing is an act of faith in something unseen. But what of those who do not believe? Who struggle to see a place for faith in something unseen? This is a theme to which I wish to return in a moment. But first, I want to tell you about a Carols event that was held in a large shopping centre near where we lived in the 1980s.

On this particular occasion, we had taken our five children to enjoy an evening of carols and Christmas spirit. However, the first half of the evening was a combination of song and mirth that managed totally to avoid any reference to the birth of Jesus. We sang ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’, ‘Jingle Bells’ and its upbeat partner ‘Jingle Bells Rock’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’, ‘Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly’ and much more; all this amidst symbols and images of abundant presents and feasting but without a nativity scene to be seen. I was beginning to wonder if there would be any reference to Christ at all during the event.

Then, at the half-way point, the shopping centre manager came onto the stage to thank everyone for coming and the sponsors who had financed the event. Having done so, he then enthusiastically went on:

Next week, girls and boys, at lunchtime everyday there will be something very special happening at Parabanks. Everyday next week what Christmas is all about will come to Parabanks; you won’t want to miss it!

I felt relieved, Jesus was at last going to get a mention and in a big way it would seem. It made the secular carols that had started the evening more palatable.  The manager then continued:

Yes, girls and boys, at lunchtime everyday next week here at Parabanks, we will be having … (wait for it) … Disney on Parade!

I was flabbergasted at this conjunction of Disney and Deity. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to come across as a Christmas grinch – but Disney on Parade as the meaning of Christmas? In a similar vein, in a shopping centre in Yokohama some years ago, I had seen a mall Santa sporting Mickey Mouse ears, but somehow I didn’t see the merger of everybody’s favourite mouse with the twentieth century version of a Turkish saint as coming close to the theology of Emmanuel – Christ with us. I suppose both incidents left me with the feeling that Christmas had been stolen.

Of course, to have been stolen, Christmas would need to have been Christian in the first place. Putting aside the oft-cited comments about the timing of Christmas being coincident with the ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, there is a substantial body of historic evidence that much of Christianity was most uncomfortable at the thought of the festival of Christmas, the birth of Jesus notwithstanding.

For example, in 1640, the Parliament of Scotland banned ‘Yule vacations’ due to their being ‘popish’ festivals; and though that Act was repealed in 1668, there continued a general Scottish indifference to the idea of Christmas for centuries with it not becoming a public holiday until as late as 1958. Mind you, lest you think this all represented an excess of Scottish dourness, remember that throughout this period of effective Santa-banning, the Scots had their very own Hogmanay, so they really didn’t need December 25th to be raucous and filled with bonhomie.

Even in the US, home of the original 1931 Coca Cola ad that bequeathed to the world the friendly, plump Santa that we now see all around us today, there had been a long tradition of resistance to Christmas as a festival. From the earliest colonial days, Puritan objections to what was seen to be a pagan practice slowed growth in its popularity.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be the church that would eventually bring about a change. In the mid C19, Christmas would finally be declared a legal holiday in the more industrialised states not due religious lobbying but because of commercial voices concerned at the skyrocketing rates of burnout since the onset of the Industrial Revolution that necessitated a day off each year. And at the federal level, it would not be until June 28 1870 that President Ulysses S Grant would sign into law the declaration of Christmas day as a legal, but unpaid, holiday for federal employees – an Occupational Health and Safety matter rather than promoting an act of joyous worship of God made man.

There is a strange irony in all this – Christmas as a non-religious gift to the community. Yet today, there is some thought that Christmas is under assault from the non-religious in our community; that they want to take away from us that which we weren’t that keen on in the first place.

This morning we heard the choir sing the Song of Zechariah [Luke 1:68-79], that beautiful canticle, one of three in the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel. Let’s pause to reflect on its closing words:

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High: for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation: by forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God: the dawn from on high shall break upon us, To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

How beautifully these words reflect the words from Galatians:

So that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

‘Tender compassion’ to those ‘in darkness and the shadow of death’ by ‘forgiveness of their sins’ – what a wondrous gift was spoken of by Zechariah. But this was never meant to be a private, copyrighted gift for the select alone.

At the Ordination Service yesterday, we as a Cathedral congregation were blessed to see our own Wendy Morecroft ordained to the priesthood. Those who were present will attest that the service was a moment of profound and sacred import as, through word, song and prayer, we shared in the pilgrimages of five people – Shane Ellery, Deborah Jeanes, Michael Rogers, Michele Yuen and Wendy – who had come for ordination as either deacon or priest. The Ven. Andrew Mintern gave the homily; during which he said these words:

It is for those people whom you’ll one day meet that you are today being ordained.

While he was speaking directly to those being ordained yesterday he was also speaking to all of us who were present, for there is a priesthood of believers of which we are all a part, and we all meet others every day. The implied question in Andrew Mintern’s words were: How should we react to the people we meet one day? As we are now in the season of Advent, we should focus the question on Christmas and how the Christmas we create may speak to others.

There is a great deal of anti-Christmas sentiment today coming from non-Christians and there are times when we seem to feel sorry for ourselves as a result. We cite reports of attempts to stop the singing of Christmas carols in schools, the replacement of Merry Christmas as a greeting by Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings. But my purpose here this morning is not to have us indulge in a time of self-pity about how the world may be both stealing our Christmas and expelling us from it, but to turn the lens of reflection upon ourselves – to make sure that we haven’t stolen the Christmas of Jesus.

For a start, is there room at our own Christmas inn for anyone other than our own loved ones?

Let me give two examples where Christians excluded or were felt to have excluded non-Christians from Christmas. Last Christmas a UK supermarket chain, Tesco, ran an advertisement promoting Christmas products; it was an inclusive advertisement that amongst others included a Muslim family sharing Christmas cheer. There was an immediate reaction with some Christians calling the clip ‘very wrong’ and seeking a boycott. One person tweeted: ‘(Tesco’s) Christian advert is offensive … I’m a devout Christian and I’m very offended.’ While another wrote:  ‘@Tesco why are you showing Muslims celebrating Christmas in your advert, that’s just wrong.’ This is despite the fact that in many parts of the world there is quite frequent sharing of festivals between Christians and Muslims in particular.

The second example is from an atheist who wrote a chapter in a 2010 publication, An Atheists’ Guide to Christmas. In a chapter entitled ‘Losing my faith’, Simon le Bon wrote:

Despite having lost my faith, I still celebrate Christmas and I love church music. I go to listen to church music. But there’s a definite school of thought which says, “if you don’t believe, you can’t celebrate it! If you don’t believe in God, you can’t have Christmas. Sorry – you’re excluded!” [p49]

How do we feel about these objections? We may want others to share our Christmas on our terms; but our terms may not really be the same as those of Jesus.

Our reading from Philippians today [Phil 1:1-11] certainly does not have an exclusionary tone. Paul’s letter talks of ‘your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now’ and ‘you … having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ’; these are sentiments that imply a welcoming outreach to non-believers.

If that is the case, how then should we believe in Christmas? And will our belief in Christmas be worthy of He after whom it is named? To believe in Jesus is one thing, to believe in why he came to earth to live amongst us is another. Believing in why he came necessitates that we seek to live like him, and striving to have that living touch the lives of others. Not just others like us, but others who struggle to believe or to have faith. During our celebration of Christmas, we will proclaim Emmanuel, God with us; we will sing Joy to the World; we will wish peace on earth and goodwill to all; we will speak about the reason for the season.

In 2014, Natasha Moore, then a doctoral fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity wrote about Christmas that:

It looks like a retreat from harsher realities; a heart-warming story about a baby born in a manger, a quaint fantasy of visiting kings, angels, and shepherds. But if we go back to the accounts of Jesus’ birth found in the gospels rather than on Christmas cards, that sharp distinction between the squalor and cruelty of the world we know and the serene spectacle of baby Jesus disappears. This is a story of poverty, desperation, and genocide; it takes place against the same backdrop of human misery and human atrocities as Christmas 2014.

That was written four years ago, but just this past fortnight I had cause to reflect on her sentiments. Martyn Iles wrote a piece on Nauru which appeared recently on the website of the Australian Christian Lobby. Nauru has been very much a topic in the news this past week and I don’t know want to get into a partisan debate but I do want us to consider what might be the call to us from Christ in situations such as this. Martyn Iles starts his piece:

Amongst Christians, a debate about Nauru rarely gets far before someone invokes Jesus. His parable of the Good Samaritan, His command to love our neighbour, even the notion that He was a refugee (sort of).

I don’t know about you, but reading all that, I started to get a worrying feeling as I read on … and I was justified, for he continued:

But here’s the thing … Jesus wasn’t telling the government what to do.

Further on, he elaborated on his views on government:

… the institution of government is not a citizen. As a citizen, duties flow to me from the commands of Christ. I must fulfil them … the government is not a citizen. They are different. They exist for different reasons.

He does acknowledge some Biblical imperatives upon government:

The government authorities … are called to a ministry for God which exercises God’s governing power to restrain evil and promote good … (but adds) … This is not a simple task. It requires great wisdom.

As an ex-politician I have to agree with the sentiment that politics is never simple, and solutions to the complex are often complex themselves. But I am afraid I found this commentary, posted on a Christian website, disingenuous. It seemed to be a call to Christians to cease lobbying government for a better deal for refugees; to let them get on and deal with a complex problem without the nagging irritation of a Christian conscience (my words). He finished by saying, somewhat condescendingly:

But when a refugee moves into your street, love them. That’s your job.

Nothing more, love them if they manage to make it to your street through whatever hurdles we might place in their way; but stop pestering the government about those hurdles before they do.

As we want Christ to be the reason for the season, let us remember that sometimes the Christmas of Christians can be as Christ-less as that of any atheist. Christmas would be a comic character parody if we celebrated the birth of a man but ignored the commandment of God to love our neighbour as ourselves. To follow that commandment does take faith.

That is why we have the symbol of the Advent Candle of Faith.