This week between Christmas Day and New Years Day is one that lends itself to observing the cross-currents of values and aspirations in our society. In the week before Christmas, more so than at any other time, there is open and wide-spread discussion of the things we commonly hold dear and want to celebrate in our spiritual, communal and emotional lives. There is a wide-spread, if brief, truce in many normally argumentative arenas of public life, and a general willingness to participate in hopefulness and helpfulness.
Traces of these things do linger for a few days, but the pressures of commercialism, sport and holiday activities crowd in on us before weve even finished eating up the leftovers from the turkey dinner. And of course there are things like illness, grief, loneliness and poverty that make no concession to the season.
Sometimes hope is invested unadvisedly or unrealistically in Christmas rituals and myths, and it is acknowledged among the caring professions that people can suffer feelings of bitter disappointment and depression when their hopes remain unfulfilled, and unhappy circumstances emerge unchanged from all the hype, the sentimentality and the mixed perspectives we commonly bring to bear on this event. It is a season of mixed and complex emotions for many of us.
This is, at least in part, because we have attached mixed and complex meanings to this community celebration, especially over the last hundred and fifty years. An article by Ross Douthatt of the New York Times appeared in the Melbourne Age on 24th December, in which the writer analyses this tangle, and identifies three perspectives or contexts all present in our Western 21st century observance of Christmas. These are: the Christian religious context, the secular context, and the non-religious spiritual context.
I found in this article a clarification and summary of my own observations and reflections over several years, as I have noted how the various threads of what we might call philosophies of Christmas are interwoven and expressed. Several features of these philosophies reinforce and affirm each other, although they start from different premises and project different future perspectives. Added to this is the undeniable tension of suffering that persists, or pain that intrudes into our festivities.
Perhaps that is why it is not uncommon to find ourselves wondering, in the aftermath of Christmas just what it all achieved. For anyone who has experienced a really stressful or unfulfilling time, that is a really poignant issue. Even those who experience Christmas as a time of blessing might sometimes find it difficult to articulate quite how that experience relates to its Biblical basis.
In that way the Scriptures have of proving to be timelessly appropriate, our two Bible readings this morning highlight two qualities commonly and insistently identified as composing the real meaning of Christmas. These are shared and agreed upon by a wide cross-section of society.
These qualities are the presence of the people we love and who love us, and compassion.
We all know that the presence of someone we know and trust is by far the greatest source of comfort and strength in difficult times, and a consistent source of fulfilment in good times. We see it in the way a childs face lights up when a parent arrives, how a restless person can be calmed by the touch of a hand, even how we are we cheered by memories of loved ones no longer with us.
In the same way that we look to the presence or memory of our loved ones for comfort, help, peace, affirmation and courage, the passage from Isaiah holds out the promise of the presence of God amongst them as the element that will revive the dispirited and despondent returned exiles.
We have Immanuel, God with us, in an even more essential manner. Christmas evokes not the angel of Gods presence, but the historical reality of Jesus entry into a human life lived among us.
Although expressed in terms that relate to the Temple-centred worship and theology of the Hebrew community, it is the authenticity of Jesus experience of human life distilled in these words that is the basis of his claim to relationship with us:
"Jesus became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be (a) merciful and faithful (high priest) in the service of God, [and] Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." (Hebrews 2:17,18)
Jesus entered into the reality and struggles of human life, and he suffered as we do. His willingness to stand in solidarity with humanity made him vulnerable to the costs and pains that life exacts of us all.
What did this achieve? I would suggest it achieved a relationship with us that nothing else could have achieved. Sharing in suffering with others has the mysterious effect of bringing about understanding, and creates a bond of companionship quite distinctively precious in its unique intimacy. We trust those who have proved themselves by suffering with us, and we accept them in all their frailty just as they have accepted us. There is a reciprocity born of shared suffering that is not achieved by any other means.
And we consider that enduring the struggles of life allows us to speak with some authority about its costs and character, because we have known them. So when Jesus speaks, we recognize in his words authority, insight and truth that we can respect as authentic.
Shared suffering also provides a common filter through which to interpret the world and respond to it. The common filter we share with Jesus is compassion. Compassion can overcome impatience, frustration, disappointment, dislike and even betrayal. Jesus was consistently, faithfully, compassionate, and has inspired generations to expand the boundaries of our natural human compassion. The universality of Jesus compassion marks him as inherently committed to all humanity. And indeed compassion has become one of the hallmarks of Christmas well beyond the religious community, becoming an integral part of what we understand Christmas to involve, no matter which Christmas philosophy we subscribe to.
In terms of the Christian Christmas, the birth of Jesus proclaims Gods solidarity with us in incontestable terms. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and his sharing of our human trials opens the way for us to join with him, and with each other in compassion, and in unique and precious companionship.
In terms of the secular or non-religious spiritual approaches to Christmas, it has become the means and opportunity for us to become a little more connected with one another, and a little more caring of one another, and for that alone, we could say Praise God for the prevalence of those impulses in our community.
We are all conscious that we about to enter a New Year, its challenges, fears, pains and joys as yet unknown. The phrase "Happy New Year" is offered widely and frequently almost as a talisman against this unknown future. Kindly meant, and kindly received as an expression of goodwill, we know that the words have no real power. Perhaps we could revive the more meaningful expressions of Go with God, or God be with you as we bless each other into the future.
However you choose to phrase it, know that God is indeed with us, in the past, the present and the future.
Let us pray:
Loving Lord Jesus, Immanuel,
Let your presence be ever more real to us,
and your compassion arise within us ever more faithfully,