My eldest daughter, Ruth, used to work for a famous high street retailer.
Sadly, the stress in and around Christmas was one of the reasons that she left them. The long hours in the run up to Christmas, the packed shops and stressed shoppers, and the night shifts just before Christmas Day itself when the shop had to be turned around rapidly into Boxing Day ‘sales’ mode, piled huge pressure on assistants and management alike. Yet everyone knew that Christmas was of vital commercial importance. And not just for this shop. The centre for retail research suggests that many Northern European retailers make more than half of their sales and profits in the three months around Christmas. www.retailresearch.org/shoppingforxmas.
The main character in the commercial Christmas is of course Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas. But underlying Santa’s prominence, is the original Christmas story. Indirectly, at least, the giving of gifts is rooted in the gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts given by the magi. And so the Christmas story is used to help legitimate the retail sector and the consumption of goods at Christmastime. How ironic, that our own texts can be co-opted to trap us in the very patterns of modern behaviour that many of us would long to escape or at least to control!
In this light, it is important to read the biblical infancy narratives again with fresh eyes and to notice their hugely subversive, liberating and revolutionary intent. In Luke’s gospel, when Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a child, the angel tells her that her baby son will be great and that God will make him a king inheriting the throne of King David. Everyone was well aware that there was already a local king – Herod – and that behind him was the weight of Roman imperial authority. Yet, after she is visited by Elizabeth, Mary responds with the words of the Magnificat, in which she glorifies the Lord who exalts the humble but brings rulers down from their thrones. When the child is eventually born, the first to the see the new born Christ in Luke’s gospel are the shepherds, who symbolise the lowest and poorest in society.
The opposition between the infant Jesus and the ruling powers is highlighted even more clearly in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s Jesus is presented from the outset as a king – descended from David, born in the royal city of Bethlehem, worshipped by Magi. He is immediately a threat to Herod and must be taken for his own safety out of Israel into Egypt. Biblical commentators have usually interpreted the flight into Egypt in theological terms, relating it in some way to Israel’s journey into and subsequent exodus from Egypt. But, straightforwardly, it’s clear that the infant Jesus is on the run. He is fleeing persecution. He is a refugee.
Thus both Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus as a king who threatens the oppressive powers governing first century Israel. Jesus is a ‘prince of peace’ whose kingdom is founded on very different principles from the military rule that underpinned the ‘pax Romana’. His kingdom is one where the first will be last and the last first. Even in his birth and infancy he is identified with the poor, the persecuted and the refugee.
Europe faces an ongoing refugee crisis. Many towns and cities across the whole continent are receiving large numbers of migrants. Our own parishes and chaplaincies are doing what they can to bring aid and assistance. There is no easy solution to the crisis. The long term solutions involve peace building and the generation of economic prosperity in the Middle East and Africa. Medium term solutions might involve the creation of safe routes and the speedier processing of asylum applications. But in the short term, the particular calling of the church is to pray and to work for the welfare of those who have been forced to flee their homes and who face a European winter. The book of Deuteronomy 10:19 teaches: ‘You are to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ We remember that this was how Jesus began his infant life too.
I have heard some wonderful and deeply moving stories of how care for the stranger has brought unexpected grace. A teacher was telling me how pupils at her school found a new sense of meaning and purpose through ministering to the Syrians who had arrived in their town. Clergy have told me how their congregations have laid aside minor disagreements when faced with the urgency of a common mission and purpose.
This Christmas, we are summoned to see the world with divine perspective and compassion. For our own good and for the good of others, we are invited to reclaim the Christmas story! We are to preach, proclaim and live the amazing news that God enters his own creation to save, console and heal the poor and the lost. God comes amongst us as a vulnerable baby sharing our own human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He becomes human so that we become divine (to quote Athanasius), but he also becomes human so that we can become more fully human ourselves. And in humanity to reach out beyond ourselves to others as he has reached out to us. That is the real gift.
Finally – aside from the commercial pressures – I am very aware that the Christmas season puts particular opportunities and pressures in the way of our chaplaincies. We are typically receiving lots of visitors who don’t normally darken the doors of our churches. At the same time, many regular church members are away at Christmas itself, visiting family or friends. So those that remain have to work especially hard to keep everything running and to provide a cheerful welcome. To all those who sustain and enable our worship over Christmas I give my warm and sincere thanks: to our clergy, lay readers and leaders, musicians, welcomers, wardens, caterers and cleaners.
And may the God whose message of peace was sung by the angels to herald the birth of his Son, bring his peace to our hearts, our homes, our families and our world over this Christmas time.