I love Christmas time for all the reasons most people in Australia do. I love the time off work to relax during summer. I love the extra time I get with my family, both nuclear and extended. I love gathering with them all around tables laden with food and wine, not just once, but many times!
I love the sounds – incessant choirs of cicadas, kids splashing in a pool, boisterous laughter around the table and the collective groan at a particularly corny joke from a Christmas cracker.
I love the smells – roasting turkey, Christmas pudding, lemon juice on smoked salmon even sun cream and insect repellent!
I love the sights – beaming smiles on my kids’ faces, the reflection of the pool shimmering across the roof of our lounge room in the middle of a sunny day, proud grandparents bouncing babies on their knees.
There are also things I don’t like about Christmas.
I don’t like the crowded shopping malls – in fact I don’t like them any other time of year either, but they’re particularly loathsome in the lead up to Christmas.
I don’t like the pressure it puts on people to meet a particular social ‘standard’ of generosity and hospitality, robbing people of the joy they can experience just spontaneously sharing with and serving those they love.
There are also things that challenge me about Christmas.
Despite the attempts of western culture to ‘decaffeinate’ Christmas, it is at the end of the day, a chance to reflect on one of the most profound moments in human history – the incarnation.
That a man named Yeshua was born in Palestine around 4BC (trust the Romans to screw up the calendar!), that he became renowned through Judea and Galilee as a teacher and miracle worker, that he got up the noses of the religious authorities of the day because of one claim in particular that he made and was executed by the Romans sometime in his mid-thirties is beyond historical doubt. You will not find an ancient historian anywhere in the world regardless of their personal faith position who will doubt these basic facts of history.
It is celebrating or remembering the birth of this historical figure that is the basis for Christmas. This figure of Yeshua, or Jesus as we know him in English, looms large over history: more books have been written about him, more songs sung about him, more paintings done of him than any person who has ever lived. Yet he himself never penned a word, or ever travelled further than a couple of hundred miles from where he was born. He grew up in a small rural hamlet and swung a hammer in a carpenter’s shop before going on to say and do the things that got him into trouble with the powers of the day.
Why on earth do we remember him, why on earth should we remember him? Why do we squirm inwardly at the sound of his name, and avoid conversation about him in ‘polite company’? I know I still do!
He did something that not too many people do. He claimed to be God. This more than anything else got him into trouble with the Jewish authorities of his day. Sure they were waiting for a promised saviour, but this bumpkin from Galilee with the uncultured accent wasn’t him.
Now this is where Jesus becomes difficult to deal with. And what we are presented with here is what CS Lewis called a ‘trilemma’. Explaining this during one of his BBC radio talks in the 1940s, he said:
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
If Jesus was a cruel liar or a deranged lunatic, then Christianity is an evil hoax that must be denounced in the strongest possible way. But, if he’s neither of those things and is who he claimed to be, then it changes EVERYTHING.
The friends he walked the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee with came to believe he was who he said he was. They went on to claim that they saw him die and rise again, that he lived the perfect, blameless life we are incapable of living and died the death of a traitor that we deserve – in our place. They travelled as far as they could to tell as many people as they could about him. What did they stand to gain from doing that? Not much according to the historians. All of them except one was violently executed for doing so, with John surviving an attempt to kill him before spending the rest of his life in exile on a remote island.
In a society that relied heavily on oral traditions and verbal storytelling, they eventually realised in the face of mounting official persecution the importance of recording their testimonies about what they had seen and now believed. The oral account that Peter shared person to person, house to house, town to town about Jesus as he moved throughout the eastern Mediterranean was written down by his friend Mark when they were in Rome as a near verbatim transcript. The Gospel of Mark is one of four incredible accounts of Jesus’ life, written within the lifetimes of those who had witnessed it. They are the most astounding and influential pieces of literature ever penned. Nothing comes close to them in their scope and simplicity, their power and their purpose.
So a challenge for me at Christmas is to wrestle anew with the answer to the question: “Who is this man?”
It would be much easier for me to avoid it altogether and just focus on the obese old guy in the red and white suit created by the Coca Cola Company, or just on a harmless, voiceless baby in a nativity scene. But the baby grew up and became dangerous. In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy trembles in front of the lion Aslan. “Is he safe?” she asks nervously. “Safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good,” comes the reply. If ‘dangerous but good’ is true of Aslan, it’s also true for the Jesus to whom Aslan points, a man at the centre point of history, who claimed to have the answers to the biggest questions anyone can ask.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard encouraged his readers to live an 'examined life' in which they would seek the answers to a number of core 'why' questions including: "Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him".
Jesus claimed to offer the answers to all these questions, and his first followers claimed to have seen the director. Do I trust Jesus’ answers? Can I trust the testimony of his friends? Lunatic, liar or Lord?
I’ve made my choice, and the ramifications of this choice continue to play out in terrifying and wonderful ways. I’m weak, but in this Jesus I have a strong faith that provides a bedrock foundation for identity, an understanding of self-worth, perseverance in times of trial and a lens though which to perceive and make sense of the complexities of the world around me. Best of all, I don’t have to earn the love of God, he’s proven to me I already have it free of charge. To sound so certain is a bit of a post-modern sin. That’s fine, because I’m still a sinner. But, I’m actually no different from anyone else in this regard really – we all have an exclusivist, faith-based world view.
Christmas is a time when I, when we, can be challenged anew by all these things, (with still plenty of time for eating, drinking, laughing and merry-making with the most important people in our lives!).
Cheers and Merry Christmas!