It was around this time of the year, many years ago, that I struck up a conversation with a friend who is a psychiatrist. We compared our professions. We recognized that many of the people we encounter are anxious during the weeks immediately approaching Christmas but, because they have plenty of time to prepare for it, they normally survive the holidays. Most find that inner strength and community support is sufficient to rise above their besetting emotional difficulties. It was during January that we found ourselves busy responding to people overwhelmed by depression, guilt and emotional difficulties.
My friend wondered if this had anything to do with the myth of Santa Claus. Unlike his more judgmental European cousin St.Nick, Santa Claus is a benevolent and indulgent grandfather figure. Somewhere around the age of seven, our child’s fantasy is shattered, and we can spend the rest of our adult life desperately trying to relive the Santa Claus myth. The marketing gurus are well aware of this, and repackage products to tap into this nostalgia. This year, for 3 times the price, you can recall those childhood memories and be just like Santa drinking Coke out of a classic fifties bottle.
We indulge one another with gifts, we run up enormous debts, and we cloud our minds and clog our arteries with alcohol and food. After Christmas, we return to work; we face the bills of overspending, we suffer hangovers and we sink into the January ‘blues’. The psychiatrist noted that we even invent a Santa Claus God who will indulge us with goodies, whether we be good or bad, and promise us eternal rewards in heaven. If we still have a fireplace in which to greet him, Santa does not come down our chimney tops. You and I know that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Nor does the God exist that we invent to take his place. No wonder many claim to be atheists or others, like myself, become Christian agnostics.
We need a God who will make sense of all the contradictions of life. We need a God who will help us accept the mystery of life. We need a God who is not fantasy or escape from reality, but rather a God with whom we can truly and intimately identify.
Have you been tempted to say, “I could just as soon do without Christmas this year”? For some reason in your life, does this season seem full of contradictions? Are you forcing yourself to be someone you are not? Are you depressed and sad during a season when you’re expected to be happy? Do you feel rejected and lonely at a time of reunions and hospitality? Have you all sorts of conditions and feelings that conflict with the season to be jolly? If that’s how you feel – don’t hold on to the Santa Claus myth, you’ll only feel worse.
Next time you hear the lyrics “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – With the kids jingle belling – And everyone telling you “be of good cheer”, turn down the volume. Face the reality of life as depicted in the stories of a homeless couple who struggle to make sense of a questionable pregnancy and who seek temporary shelter in cattle shed to give birth to their child.
The birth of Jesus was of little significance to others apart from his immediate family. References in the gospels are intended not as factual accounts, but as stories contrived to explain the significance of his birth. They were written as statements of faith with respect to the identity of Jesus, and the source of his message.
For me Christmas remains a challenge. The fabric of this story, myth, allegory and parable, has been woven to interpret our condition and to satisfy our human longing for meaning. It reflects the dreams and aspirations of a particular people over a particular period of time to resolve their painful disappointments and, in spite of defeat, to cling on with hope of a better future. Christmas is but another Easter. Both are stories of birth and of re-birth. They declare liberation breaking out of bondage, life arising out of death, light piercing through the darkness. Both retell the central myth of an even more embracing story – the kingdom of heaven, the peaceable kingdom where the hidden Shekhinah, a sacred glory, becomes more evident.
We cannot appreciate the stories of the first Christmas without first understanding the narratives from which they arose. They reflect the temple theologies of their time; the Messianic hope of deliverance from bondage, the Jewish prayer for a restored Shekhinah – divine presence of glory; the dream of a peaceable kingdom when all would live under a righteous rule of compassion.
Every phrase within the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke evokes those memories and dreams.They allude to mythic stories of birth and deliverance when Jewish identity and survival were at risk: of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph of Egypt, Miriam and Moses, Hannah and Samuel, Queen Esther, King David, and the prophets Daniel, Jonah and Enoch – to name but a few.
Those stories may be interpreted on three levels. Each level describes the human search for identity and meaning in the face of contradiction. They describe the experience of a particular people as they developed a unique identity and communal history and tradition. We can also receive them as universal myths relate to each and every human search for existential meaning.
So, let’s not just talk about Bethlehem. Let’s talk about ourselves. Who are we? What do we entail? Who do we carry around inside of us? How do we connect to the sacred mystery, to the eternal source of all existence – not just that which exists beyond our grasp and comprehension but things underfoot, within our reach, that we might disregard or overlook.
Christmas has become an archetype. That is its power. It means many things to many people, and some of these things are just plain offensive. Among the offensive things would be the glut of materialism and consumerism that characterizes the season in a consumer-dominated culture, or the sentimentalism that wallows in nostalgia.
But what are the deepest meanings of this archetype called Christmas?
Christmas is non-triumphal. That is to say, it is not about the victory of any empire, god, tribe, or human enterprise. It is not history written by the conquerors. Quite the opposite: It is “history,” or at least a story, about the non-conquerors, the unsuccessful, the non- empire-builders. Christmas is the mythic story of deliverance and survival against all odds – like delivering a child into an inhospitable corner of this world. It is a story of a destitute couple with no home or hostel to take them in for the safe delivery of their unborn child. It is a story repeated in today’s world of poverty and exclusion – and not just in the “third world” . Yes, it is repeated in horrors of the destroyed city of Allepo where a child will be born among the rubble, with dirty rags and filthy water. But it is also found in the hidden corners and neighbourhoods of our own urban jungles, isolated rural hamlets and reserves. Christmas is a story of survival.
But it is more than that. The archetype of Christmas addresses the identity of every human child. Not only the son and daughter of the rich and famous, but the “every child,” including the poorest of children born to the poorest of parents in the poorest of circumstances—in a stable, within a refugee camp, on a reservation, or in isolation. What about that child? What is his or her worth?
A few years ago, I attended a Christmas pageant with my three-year old grandson. As performed annually at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Toronto, the Christmas pageant is a major production, complete with live animals that include a camel loaned from the Toronto Zoo. My grandson, Finley, was spellbound. He refused to leave at the end of the performance. He was seriously concerned for the well-being of Mary, Joseph, and their baby Jesus. He insisted, “We can’t leave them behind. They have nowhere to go.” He was not convinced by my assurance that these were actors who would be returning to the comforts of their Forest Hill neighbourhood.
Too soon this world’s prejudice, self-interest, anxiety and fear, rebuff our childish innocence, natural curiosity, and instinctive reaching out to friend and stranger. It was enough to prompt Jesus of Nazareth to say the obvious, that “unless we are prepared to be born again and to reassume the role of a child, we shall not enter the realm of life in all its fulness and wellbeing.
That is the news that Christmas brings: That a child who comes into the world, however unconnected, however poor and insignificant, however unheralded, is a sacred being, Emmanuel incarnate, all that is divine – among-us.
Therein lies the good news of this archetype. It stretches the imagination to suggest it, especially in light of how many of us have been destroyed or continue to destroy each other in war, torture, and other atrocities. Those destructive impulses arise from our denial and indifference of the fundamental sacredness of every human being. It is a truth that stares us in the face at Christmas: that every child is sacred and counts more than we can imagine. Every child is a unique face of “God”, or however we define the sacred and ultimate value of being. Every child is a unique image of that which lies beyond the cosmos – that which remains so often hidden, but becomes manifest within creation— including the human creature, the helpless baby who will grow, we hope, into a compassionate adult.
Matthew Fox is an Anglican priest and exponent of what is known as creation spirituality. Fox asks of Christmas, “Is such a story credible? Does it take more faith than we can muster in what I fear is fast becoming a ruthless, hardened twenty-first century? What are the implications of this lesson – for education? For economics? For politics? For religion? For the media? For our human search for meaning? If every child is a son or daughter of God, a bearer of divine wisdom, a human face for the holy Mystery, what about every adult?
Is this God-among-us, this sense of the sacred Mystery in our midst, this sacred reverence for life, lost as we grow older? If so, why? If lost, can we get it back? And how do we do that?” What would a society—or better, a community—look like if we all committed to every human child and every human adult being as an image of the living God? Or “another Christ”? Or the Shekhinah in our midst?”
His are challenging questions, which is why Christmas is not going away, no matter how woefully our consumerist culture beats it up, or how much institutional religion resists and glibly fails to plumb its deeper meaning. Such was the case during the fourteenth century when the mystic theologian Meister Eckhart was charged with heresy. He proclaimed in a Christmas sermon, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Eckhart’s interpretation of the Christmas story does not stop with our being divine children. It insists that we ourselves give birth to the divine child on a daily basis – as we relate to one another, and with every living thing upon this earth that exists within an awesome and timeless existence.
Whatever you choose to name it – this season is time to affirm and celebrate the sacredness of being, to allow the child within you come to birth
Neil Carver 11.12.2016
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo