I saw the following words glitter in gold print on the wall of a Church in our beloved town of Luton this week:
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”
The bibliophiles among us may recognise it from Luke 2:10. As I stared, and pondered these words, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might mean to those outside the cozy inner circle of religious adherents. That day I had spent time with a lonely immigrant from Senegal desperate for work, a serial alcoholic, a young lady who had recently found herself homeless, a young man suffering from chronic mental health problems, and an older gentleman in chronic pain after a botched medical treatment, and many others with troubling stories. I couldn’t help wonder, what about Christmas is good news for them? Where they might find joy at this time of year save from the bottom of a bottle or a used hypodermic? Even experiences in my own cushy little life had me hating Christmas until recently.
As a dear friend once observed, the problem with putting yourself out to make contact with people the Church doesn’t traditionally reach, is that it makes you look at the world differently. Song lyrics and placards in Church which once seemed profound now leave me with a lot of questions.
I have begun to develop a sense of unease with the morbid fixation most Evangelical Christians have with the crucifixion of Christ, often waxing lyrical in graphic detail about the precise nature of his physical suffering at the hands of his torturers. I find it hard to understand why some folks spend a great deal of time talking about the death of this Jesus they follow, and yet comparatively little on his life. If I see one more “reason for the season” post on Facebook with a holly wreath next to a crown of thorns, I think I might burst.
So what is so special about Christmas? And what possible relevance does it have for people who have no family to eat turkey with, no money for gifts to give their Children, no holiday from the constant pain they suffer, no shelter from the cold due after the bombs dropped on their homes? Is it just a ‘baptised’ pagan festival we would be better off ignoring?
There is a special and strange word some of us sing at this time of year: “Emmanuel”. The CofE School educated among us, at a real stretch, might even remember the meaning of it, but if January’s credit card statements are anything to go by, we have probably forgotten.
Locked in this word is, for me, the real magic of Christmas. The word means “God is with us”. Not in a George Bush or an Ultra Zionist kind of way, but in the way which caused an impoverished middle eastern refugee, pregnant with a Child not fathered by her fiancee, to sing:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary’s Song: Luke 1:46-55 ESV (emphasis mine)
This radical song was considered so subversive it was banned from being read at Mass in some South American countries. This is a message of hope, which I believe may have some significance to some of my friends.
For me, the true magic of Christmas, is that God looks down upon our distress, the oppression suffered by so many, the despair of sickness, the pain of addiction, the loneliness of the lost sheep, and becomes present.
God did not send a Roman senator to bring political reform, nor a great military leader to vanquish evil, but became a little child. He was born into the filth of a stable, bore the shame of growing up a refugee, and of questionable parenthood. And the child became a man, living one of the most radical and revolutionary lives ever known to human kind.
If you’re not a fan of Church or religion, don’t worry, some days I’m not either. But I hope your local church will make you feel welcome to join in the festivities, singing songs of hope that God is present in our distress. And if you’re a regular, take a look at some of the slogans up in the walls of your Church, or listen closer to the lyrics of the songs you’re singing. And think about how much your life, your family, and your church and even your credit card bill, are reflecting those ideas to people outside the church doors.
In primary school we sang the song “O little town of Bethlehem”, and this week I have been struck by the immediacy of the lyric “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”. We live in a world where many have little in the way of hope, but I dare to hope that those who are suffering this Christmas may find God present in their struggles.
Peace to you and your kin, and Merry Christmas.