Close to Christmas now and, apart from things that are necessarily done at the last-minute like food preparation and arranging the house for hospitality, we’re set. I find myself getting ready for two versions of Christmas that I engage with simultaneously – the cultural one and the spiritual one. They are pretty different. I mean, what do you make of the fact that so many of our Christmas traditions have their origins in paganism?
That used to bother me more than it does now. I still do cringe a bit when well-meaning Christians try to shoehorn theological significance into Christmas trees, tinsel, bells, snowmen and Santa. I don’t think anyone can find a sound spiritual rationale for giving so many expensive, elaborately wrapped consumer goods and eating and drinking way too much. Let’s just face it; our cultural rituals at this time of year may be loads of fun, but they just don’t have anything whatsoever to do with God taking on flesh and being born as a human being.
So in my head I just separate them, treating the cultural Christmas as a piece of entertainment – like rolling Australia Day, the Adelaide Arts Festival, the Melbourne Cup, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, Grand Final Day and every Food-and-Wine Festival that ever was into one event and putting a sprig of holly on top. Great fun, a bit of a laugh and as long as you don’t drink and drive, no harm done.
But the spiritual Christmas? Well, I keep that more low key, to share quietly in reverence and awe with those who love our Saviour as I do. THAT Christmas leaves me speechless in wonder that the creator of all that is would come near in such humility and kindness to draw this fickle human race back into relationship with himself. Considering how we’ve so comprehensively botched his vision of a creation alive and thriving in perfect balance and harmony, it’s almost incredible that God would not come to us in wrath and power rather than as a humble and vulnerable baby. I say ‘almost’ because, of course, God’s responses are in sharp contrast to the way I would do things.
If there’s any link between the cultural Christmas and the spiritual Christmas it might be in the spiritual practices of feasting, fellowship, singing and generosity. ‘Are those actually spiritual disciplines?’, I hear you ask. In the popular contemporary books on this topic we’re more likely to read of spiritual disciplines that arose from the monastic movement like fasting, solitude, silence and austerity. And that’s right too. Those disciplines of self-denial and detachment are necessary antidotes for compulsive, self-indulgent people like me (and maybe you, too?)
But there are also disciplines of affirmation and engagement. Just think of the rhythm of festivals God established in the Old Testament. There were some pretty full-on parties there, all to the glory of God. In our Christmas feasting we can, if we choose, rise above crass gluttony to affirm the pleasure God gives us in food. In our gatherings we can go beyond just attending another party to give thanks for the gift of friendship and engage with others in an affirmation of sociability. When we sing, rather than approaching carols with a grumpy or gushy attitude (depending on whether you are carol-phobic or a carol fan) we can affirm that the complexity and beauty of human music is unique in all creation. And when we give gifts, it can be more than fulfilling some unwritten contractual obligation. It really can be a spiritual practice that reflects the generosity of God towards us.
Well, I’m off now to help Heather prepare the food for the coming days. Family and friends will gather, plus some people I don’t know well (and one I’ve never met) who have no family here in Sydney. It’s going to be a little glimpse of the kingdom of God, I think.
May you be drawn ever deeper into the mystery and joy of the incarnation.