Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas gifts

As a regular reader of The Australian newspaper, two items especially caught my attention this week – the first was an article on Monday in the Business section reporting on one of the greatest brand competitions of recent times – Jesus vs. Santa – well, the surprising thing was not that Santa is still outselling Jesus by a factor of about a hundred - we already knew that – after all, it’s hard to beat the marketing strategy of a fat guy in a red suit who can persuade you to punish your credit card by pretending to fly around the whole world in a single night, giving everybody exactly what they want – the truly surprising thing about the article that seemed to utterly flabbergast the writer – was that Jesus is catching up.  Fast.  Nativity scenes still have a long way to go before they’re as popular as Santa’s grotto – but according to this columnist religion’s making a comeback – it’s almost cool to be Christian.  Almost.

So I started thinking about this whole Santa vs. Jesus thing.  Of course, Santa’s got the whole present-giving scene wrapped up (if you’ll pardon the pun) – even small children realise very quickly they’ve got a vested interest in believing in Santa Claus when there’s a Nintendo at stake.  But even though Santa and the reindeers and all the paraphernalia of fake snow and tinsel might hype it up a bit – and even though Santa with all the secular mythology and the relentless commercialism of Christmas has added considerably to the guilt and the stress and the anxiety of the age-old practice of giving gifts to those we love - the giving of gifts at Christmas-time is something that Jesus and Santa very much have in common.  And it’s a practice that I think tells us something quite profound about ourselves – and about God.

You know the old saying, ‘it’s the thought that counts’?  Well, I’ve got to tell you something that generations of kids have known all along – it isn’t the thought that counts – well, not entirely – it’s the present!  On my bookshelves in my study – at least when I clear away a few layers of paper and stacks of books and used coffee cups – you can see a number of little gifts my wife has given me on various occasions – a couple of little wooden angels, a set of Chinese chiming balls, a few pieces of pottery – each of these little objects tells me that my wife loves me, that she thinks about me, and it seems to me that in some way Alison’s gifts for me are a part of her that she has given to me.  When you give somebody a present, you remember them, you affirm how much they matter, you say something tangible about your relationship with them.  Santa reminds us of this, and that’s a good thing, it’s an appropriate thing and I don’t even think that Jesus and Santa are in competition about this.  But the story we celebrate tonight – the story of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago – I think that tells us that the idea of giving presents didn’t start with us, it started with God – and it tells us what God’s present to us really is.  And you already know this.  The reason every one of us thinks it’s worthwhile coming here in the middle of the night is because we know that in the not very remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth – 2,000 years ago – God is not just telling us he loves us, it’s not just the thought that counts but the gift – God making it tangible and real because in this unlikely birth heaven and earth have touched – God giving us himself, flesh and blood real, as the world’s first Christmas present. 

And that brings me to the second item in The Australian newspaper that caught my eye this week – and it was the cartoon in this morning’s paper – superimposed on a backdrop of an actual photograph of the devastation of an village in Afghanistan – destroyed by who knows what – earthquake or war – huddles a little Afghani boy and he’s hung a red sock on a makeshift washing line.  It looks utterly incongruous.  And the caption reads, ‘At least Santa won’t forget me’.  I guess, to some extent, we do forget, the suffering continues there but we move on, more concerned about troubles closer to home, terrorism, riots in Cronulla, industrial relations laws.  And that image is troubling because we know that the Santa story doesn’t help, deep down, we know there’s a fault-line that runs right down the middle of the Santa myth, because it affirms the haves and it leaves the have-nots out in the cold.  And deep down we know that Christmas isn’t good news at all, unless it’s good news equally for us and for that little boy in a forgotten village in Afghanistan.

And so we look a little bit closer at the other Christmas story, the one about Jesus.  It, too, contains much that’s glossy and romantic – stables and animals and mangers – angels bursting into song in the night sky – until we think about the reality of Jesus’ birth, not to a powerful or a wealthy family, but to a woman and a man too poor to grease a few palms to get somewhere to sleep for the night.  Born to a scandalously unmarried girl in an emergency shelter surrounded by animals and presumably some other equally unpleasant-smelling humans, put to bed in an animals’ feed trough because his parents couldn’t afford anything better, the Son of God enters the world on the very edge of poverty.  And the angels?  They don’t burst in on King Herod in his palace in Jerusalem but on a windswept hillside to a group of the smelliest social pariahs of the day – shepherds living rough out in the bush.  And what do they say?  A Saviour is born tonight – to you.  That’s what the story claims – that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is meant to make a difference to losers and outcasts. 

In Jesus of Nazareth we see the world’s first Christmas present.  Not just the thought that counts, but God taking away all the distance between the human and the divine; God remembering us, God wanting to be loved by us, God becoming vulnerable and helpless before us.  God, risking everything to give us a gift we might reject.  And we recognise this, because that’s what it’s like for us when we give gifts to one another; to really give a gift to one we love is to give ourselves, it’s to be vulnerable to the one we desire, to risk rejection.

And that’s good news for shepherds, good news in Afghanistan – how?  In part, I think, because the gift that God gives us in Jesus Christ is the gift that keeps on giving – the gift that transforms us as we dare to receive it.  Accept this Christmas present and you’ll never look at the world in the same way again.  Dare to accept the God who gives God’s own self – dare to take the risk of coming alive by giving your own self in love for the world that God loves.  The God who gives himself away for us blesses us to the extent that we become poor in spirit, the extent that we dare to stand in solidarity with those who are literally and unambiguously poor.

But mainly, it’s good news because of its sheer, breathtaking extravagance.  God desires us and chooses to live among us despite all that’s mean and small and corrupt about us – quite incredibly, despite the selfishness and he meandering and the inconstancy of the human heart - God wants us.  Despite the agony of bereavement, the anguish of a feared prognosis, the dull ache of unemployment or homelessness or out-of-control debt – right where you are is where God wants to be.  Despite the poverty and the dirt and malnutrition that one half of humanity forces on the other, the God who created us says tonight, ‘I’m with you, I’m going through what you go through.  I will always remember you.’  And within the embrace of that extravagant love we discover ourselves to be blessed, to be those for whom as St Paul writes: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’