Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas

One of my very favourite movies of all time is the 1980s classic, ‘Groundhog Day’.  Actually, the first couple of times I tried to watch it, it felt like Groundhog Day, because I never got to see the end – the first time it was an old videotape that collapsed and died halfway through, I think the next time was when it came on TV and there was a power blackout halfway through, the next time after that I settled down to watch Groundhog Day I got called away halfway through.  It seemed to go with the theme, Bill Murray as a self-centred TV cameraman doomed to relive the same day over and over again, never quite getting lucky with Andy MacDowell, groaning with despair every morning when the radio alarm comes on with the same cheesey song and realising that it’s still Groundhog Day, he’s still trapped in his own private time-loop, the exact same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events are going to happen in the exact same sequence as they did the day before and there’s nothing he can do to change it.  And I think it’s a feeling that resonates with our own real-life experience, we all feel like that sometimes, stuck in a groove that we can’t get out of – we know just what it’s like for the character stuck in time because we’ve all been there in one way or another – and I know I’m right because it’s not so very often that the title of a movie instantly becomes part of the language – it’s even in the Macquarie Dictionary, in fact, just groan and say to the person next to you, ‘oh I can’t stand it, the same Christmas sermon every year, it’s Groundhog Day’ and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

And actually, if you’re feeling like that then good, because what I want to suggest is that it actually is Groundhog Day.  The whole Christmas bit, and not just the churchy bits either – the Christmas shopping, what on earth to get for Aunty Ethel, working out whose turn it is in the extended family to have the crowd around for Christmas lunch, the excess of tinsel, fairy lights and nativity scenes, the same corny Christmas movies on TV, the round the world sailors needing rescuing all over again by the Australian navy, the kids getting tired and emotional, eating too much chocolate and finally – blessed relief – the Boxing Day Test starts tomorrow, silly season finally arrives and we can all go to sleep. 

The whole point about Groundhog Day is the external circumstances don’t change.  It’s a little American country town re-enacting a small-town ritual at the end of winter, the day the groundhog wakes up and has a look around and decides whether spring’s really here yet.  And because Bill Murray’s stuck in time, every day the groundhog decides it isn’t spring yet, and goes back to bed.  And every day the same thousand and one things that happen in a little town happen.  People fall in love, people hurt and humiliate one another, lies get told and dishes get dropped, appointments get forgotten, hopes get dashed, somewhere a homeless person dies of cold, a child falls out of a tree, somebody writes a poem.  And I guess in the movie the reason Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day is that none of this stuff matters to him.  People don’t touch him.  He just doesn’t notice the beauty and the sadness of what’s happening all around him every single day.  And so it keeps happening, over and over again, in the exact same sequence, until he does start to notice, and until it starts to dawn on him that the one thing that actually has to change, is him.

It seems to me that every year of my life, Christmas – or at least the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, has been a time of waiting for something to happen.  At first it was about waiting for Father Christmas to come, and knowing how important it was to have clean fingernails on Christmas night, putting out the fruit cake and glass of cordial and trying desperately to get to sleep because you knew he’d never come while you were awake  And somehow that got all mixed in with waiting for baby Jesus, and feeling the suspense as the little family made their way to Bethlehem and looked for the room we knew wasn’t there – and knowing that somehow, the safe arrival of this little baby made all the difference, that the world was a better place for children and shepherds and wise men alike, because God loved and trusted the world enough to allow his Son to be born in it.

But at some point in my life I found myself reflecting on the fact that the world wasn’t going to be a safe place for baby Jesus, and that God must have known his Son was being born into a world that didn’t want to hear his message of forgiveness and love – and it seems to me that by daring to be vulnerable God was really, really asking for it.  And that the world we live in still hasn’t got the point of that original Christmas Day, because it’s still not a safe place, and the same trivial, pathetic, silly, sad and tragic events keep happening.  And maybe, like me, you find yourself asking, ‘why is that, God?’  Why do you keep doing Christmas, every single year, why keep offering us the hope of Christmas Day when you know very well that it hasn’t changed anything yet?  And for me one of the bittersweet rituals of Christmas is to think about the stuff that happens because men and women haven’t got the point yet, or because we don’t know how to stop being the way we are, or because we feel powerless to make any difference.  And to ask God to do something about that.

And when we gather it up, there’s quite a collection of stuff to put under the tree this year.  Stuff about our world that we’d like baby Jesus to make right, if only we thought he could.  The same collection of wars and famines we have most years, in fact, lots of them are the same wars and famines.  Ones we forget about because they’ve been going on so long they become like a sort of background noise that we screen out.  Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka.  A really good Christmas present would be for human beings to try to work out ways of solving problems that didn’t involve killing each other.  Sudden natural disasters: an earthquake and tsunami in Burma, an earthquake in China that remind us that the planet we live on is alive and sometimes unpredictable.  The slow-motion crisis of global warming, species extinctions, climate change and water shortages that challenges us to change the ways we live or else imperil the generations that follow us.  The collapse of global financial markets that reminds us that greed isn’t good, after all, that the unsustainable pursuit of wealth has got real-world consequences.  The scandal of homelessness in our own lucky country, where over 10,000 people sleep rough every night of the year.

What’s baby Jesus going to do with that little lot?

It seems to me that in the birth of Jesus, God is trying to drop us a couple of very broad hints about who we are, and who God is.  Because, first of all, it’s a very intimate message.  God, it turns out, isn’t remote, isn’t some set-and-forget deity up there in the sky who vaguely wants the best for the world, but one who takes the risk of being part of the world on its own terms in order to have a real relationship with us.  And what that tells us is that there’s a connection between God’s life and our own lives.  It’s a message that says: ‘this is how much I love you’.  But even more than that, it’s a message that says ‘this is how I operate’.  It’s what we might call the principle of incarnation.  The principle that God makes a difference in the world, not by being all-powerful, but by being vulnerable.  A God who typically chooses to work through human hands and human hearts.  And who keeps on confronting our humanity until we notice.

In Groundhog Day it takes Bill Murray thousands and thousands of incarnations.  Thousands of Groundhog Days, each one mind-numbingly the same as the one before.  Until gradually, he starts to notice that the meaning of his own life is connected with the lives of everyone else stuck in the time-loop with him.  And as soon as he gets the point, as soon as he begins living face-forward to the future, oriented toward hope, then time starts travelling in the right direction again.  And he does then get lucky with Andy MacDowell, but that’s probably just a fringe benefit.

And that, I think, is what the message of Christmas is all about.  It’s not remote, it’s personal.  It’s about the connection between God taking on the weakness and the vulnerability of our humanity, and us learning to look at the suffering of the world through the eyes of God.  About us working out that the one thing that needs to change, is us.  That the shopping list of what’s wrong with the world has got something to do with how we live, and what we live for.  About us learning the principle of incarnation that says: God still works through human hands and human hearts.  Ours.

And the wonder of Christmas is that, like Groundhog Day, we get to keep reliving it, over and over again, until we get it.