Many will know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran Pastor and Theologian, who was imprisoned in 1943 because of his complicity in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer spent the Christmas of 1944 in prison (Tegel jail). From prison he wrote to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, these words
My dearest Maria,
Im so glad to be able to write you a Christmas letter, and to be able, through you, to convey my love to my parents and my brothers and sisters, to thank you all. Our homes will be very quiet at this time. But I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you all. Its as if, in solitude, the soul develops organs of which were hardly aware in everyday life. So I havent for an instant felt lonely and forlorn. You yourself, my parents all of you including my friends and students on active service are my constant companions. Your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books all are invested with life and reality as never before. I live in a great unseen realm of whose real existence Im in no doubt. The old childrens song about the angels says "two to cover me, two to wake me," and today we grownups are no less in need than children of preservation, night and morning, by kindly, unseen powers. So you mustnt think Im unhappy. Anyway, what do happiness and unhappiness mean? They depend so little on circumstances and so much more on what goes on inside us. Im thankful every day to have you you and all of you and that makes me cheerful...
I embrace you.
For many in difficult or deprived situations, it is the love of ones loved ones that sustains & nurtures their spirits.
The Christmas story is one of those particularly nurturing narratives. But the story is also supported by the culture in which we live. I have said before that we celebrate two Christmases, that can at times be in conflict with each other.
The Christmas of Culture
The Christmas of our culture is at times rude, rough and brash. It is difficult not to see it as an economic / retail monster that sucks us into buying what we can't afford and others perhaps don't want. We have a good and bad Christmas depending on whether or not we reach the magical $9.5 billion retail sales.
Now before you call me Mr Scrooge who humbugs your Christmas, there is a definite joy in giving to the ones we love and a wonderful connection in receiving gifts from others. Generosity should mark this season.
But gift-giving is a rather new phenomenon at Christmas and has little to do with the gifts of the Magi - Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Nevertheless, with Santa Claus, tinsel, the North Pole, reindeers and Christmas turkeys - these are ways we in our culture connect with each other. Now thats not to say that it is devoid of the spirit of love.
A few years ago a friend and I collected outside Coles in Tunstall Square for the Christmas Bowl appeal, an experience I have not repeated. In that situation you catch people when they have their guard down. As we strategically and assertively placed the "begging bowl" under their nose and said "Would you like to give to The Christmas Bowl Appeal?" we had several reactions:
I've already given.
Ah! No thank you.
What's it for?
Sorry, I don't have any money.
I'll catch you on the way out.
And ... certainly, I would love to.
Apart from the tearful few, most people wanted to give. Yes, they were rather vulnerable but they had a sense that this Festival of Christmas was not just about them, it was about others.
Like buying gifts at Christmas, we are buying them for others, not for ourselves (although I did see a pair of sandals I needed). So we fill hampers for the homeless, respond to the needs of Africa and wrap our gifts not only in coloured paper but in love.
As a culture though, there is just one shift we need to make in our giving to the needy at Christmas and that is to make the shift from Charity to Justice. Why are there homeless in our society? Why are African children dying for lack of the most basic health services? Our Christmas generosity does not absolve us from asking the big questions that perhaps Santa and his elves are unable to answer.
The Birth of Jesus
Thats why we need a bigger story than the one that our culture will give us. Might I say, a counter-cultural story that gives some meaning and hope to the Christmas pudding. That is the birth of Jesus and the story that wraps the infant in the stable.
This story deepens our celebrations around the Christmas feast. It is not a sentimental or superficial story, but a story of hope born in despair; light shining in the darkness; joy present in birth and peace glimpsed in a troubled world.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffers Christmas letter to his beloved fiancée Maria, he brings depth to the Christmas Message.
"I live in a great unseen realm of whose real existence I am in no doubt..."
Locked in a prison where despair could have its way, he draws on the rich resources of this simple narrative to nurture hopefulness in his life.
Remember, this story of the birth of Jesus is acted out not in the centre of the city, not in the centre of the culture, but in a place of abandonment. There is nothing cute or romantic about a child born in an animal stable.
The visitors who came equally are on the edge of polite society. It is no accident that the story chronicles the arrival of shepherds. These men of simple background can see what the high falutin can't see.
If we don't feel some discomfort with this scene; if we don't wince at the sad and deprived environment into which this child is born, then we will miss what this story offers.
I am reminded of Michael Leunig's poem:
Love is born
With a dark and troubled face,
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place;
Love is born,
Love is always born.
Our culture will always push us to sanitize the stable - turn it into an icon or worse, a cosy, warm form of the "Stable Hilton". We resist that, because we know the story. We see the "Divine light" here in this place. And when God is present, it is for a purpose; and that purpose is to transform this world into which Jesus is born, so that no child will have to be born in a stable: thats the message of love and justice.
Sadly, many of our Christmas carols let us down at this point. They are more of the products of 19th century piety than an interpretation of the Biblical narrative.
I know we love them, but in a cultured sense. I mean "no crying he makes" - I don't think so. They sometimes - not always - they don't deepen our experience and challenge us to explore the Christmas story for its life-giving message of love and hopefulness.
So may we all this Christmas experience the realness/reality of Christmas in our lives. Taking the story, the signs and symbols, and allowing them to do their good work in our lives. A gentle story and yet strong. A scene of love and compassion and yet edged by the harsh reality of poverty and abandonment; real life born in a dark place.
Finally, Leunig's Christmas Poem:
I see a twinkle in your eye.
So this shall be my Christmas Star
And I will travel to your heart:
The manger where the real things are.
And I will find a mother there
Who holds you gently to her breast;
A father to protect your peace;
And by these things you shall be blessed.
And you will always be reborn;
And I will always see the star
And make the journey to your heart:
The manger where the real things are.