Christmas Day 2019
Have a defiant Christmas! ©Sue Grimmett
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Who said that?
They are the words of course of that most famous of Charles Dicken’s colourful collection of characters, Ebenezer Scrooge. It occurs in the story after he has been visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who led him on an odyssey where he was forced to confront himself. It was a journey into conversion- of seeing where the old path was leading him, who he had become and enabling him to find a new way of being before it was too late. For Scrooge, Christmas was an encounter, a moment that opened him to the way of unconditional forgiveness and personal transformation that he committed to holding to not just in this one season, but throughout the years of his life ahead.
But what would it mean for us to honour Christmas in our heart and try to keep it not just today, but through all the year?
Sometimes this idea can be awash with sentimentality, particularly when we are bombarded with rather saccharine images in the media every year. But there is nothing cute or sentimental about the painful journey taken by Ebenezer Scrooge in order to arrive at a new place where he could honour Christmas in his heart. A spiritual awakening is not for the faint hearted.
I think we are dimly aware of the challenge of Christmas in the drama of the stories and the symbols that dominate seasonal imagery and the decorations that adorn our houses. The most obvious of these is light in darkness. The shepherds were keeping watch in the darkness of the Bethlehem countryside when the angels arrived to shine their glory all around. The movement is from things hidden to revelation, the unseen world cutting through the darkness and despair of night to unveil the light and hope that has always been shining.
The in-breaking of God to our world is as the dawn of a new day after a long night. God dawns in our hearts in the same way, as happened for Ebenezer Scrooge, who recognised this Christmas spirit and vowed to maintain that same light burning within him throughout the year. And so we light up our homes, our streets and Christmas trees to remind us that no matter what the media or our own painful memories may tell us, the darkness is not all consuming- not in our world, our homes, and not in our own hearts. In some cultures of the world candles are lit in windows as a sign to the holy family that a space would be found for them to shelter there because theirs is a household that offers hospitality to the poor, the lonely or the refugee. Such generosity is a sign that Christ has been born once more in the soul of another human being. It is as if, as G.K Chesterton describes, “A man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.”1
Christmas with its rich imagery can gift to us the resources we need to be light bearers, betrayed into good by the revelation that God has planted the seed of goodness in our hearts. But this is not to say that the light that shines in the darkness is passive or cheery in a festive way. The symbols of Christmas, such as evergreen trees, for instance, were not created in sweetness and nostalgia as many think, but with a rebellious and provocative edge. Unfortunately for us here in Australia, that edge has been lost when at Christmas we are not shivering with cold, watching the trees lose their leaves and the darkness closing in on longer
nights. The evergreen tree is a symbol of the perseverance of life in the face of death; of staying awake when all else in the world is sleeping. Chesterton again, captures this well saying simply that,
“A religion that defies the world should have a feast that defies the weather.” The true spirit of Christmas is more sassy than sentimental, more mutinous than merry, more gutsy than gushy. This, after all, is the story of a holy child who comes, born of a poor family manipulated by the oppressive yoke of a dominant and powerful empire, who will live to defeat the forces of violence with the power of love and forgiveness. In the face of violence, hatred and despair, Christmas stands vulnerable but defiant, proclaiming that hope, joy and peace are ours and will endure.
Such a narrative can hold us and give us courage for our future. But stories need to be retold afresh in every time and place. As good as Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is, I often wonder if we would be telling and retelling it in so many different ways if we had found our own stories for our own context. After all, the evils of our society are no longer the Victorian workhouses and orphanages which Dickens confronts and we could do well to consider where the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future would have taken us in Brisbane if they had visited us last night. Symbols, too, lose their power when taken out of context; an evergreen tree is a pretty custom in Australia rather than an icon of the perseverance and hope of life in a surrounding landscape of dormancy and death.
If Christ is born anew each Christmas in our homeland, our churches, our families and in our own hearts, where can we discern the signs of the in-breaking of God? Where can we hear the perennial whisper of the angels, “Don’t lose heart! The glory of God is very close to you!”
In a continent battling bushfires and baking heat across so many regions of a vast landscape, perhaps Christ can be found, born anew, in the hearts of those who are willing to persist and persevere in fighting fires threatening homes and habitats, even at risk of their own life. We need to lament the extinction of species, the rising temperatures and the loss of life, including the lives of those people who have been fighting the fires or who have lost homes and livelihood. We need to reflect on the changes we need to make in our own lives if we are to live in greater peace and harmony with the earth. Perhaps the glory of God may be found close to those who have tried but failed to bring about protections for farms or health for river systems or conservation of forests, but who have been indomitable in their refusal to give up hope for the land or for their communities.
Someone said to me recently how much they look forward to when we will see those first photos coming through on social media of the new life that will emerge from the charred landscapes. Perhaps we can, this Christmas-tide find a symbol, different to the evergreen tree but just as rebellious, in the strength of native trees whose roots branch out to hold their place in the earth bearing hard seed shells that survive the flames only to break open and germinate, bringing new life. If we can likewise protect and nurture within us the spiritual seed that awakens us to new life and hope, maybe we can find the strength to honour the defiant spirit of Christmas all the year.
Mary, gazing at her newborn, hears the message of angels from the lips of wandering shepherds. Luke’s Gospel describes all those gathered there as being amazed at everything they were told, but Mary listens, treasures the words and ponders them in her heart. Mary, in that first Christmas, was drawing strength and hope from the evidence she hears that in her birthing she has brought forth a light that the darkness will never overcome. This child, in his poverty and humility, would be a symbol of liberation over oppression, mercy over judgement, love over violence. We arrive at this day to find the steadfast light that shines no matter what the darkness and a blackened landscape that refuses to give into barrenness.
As we ponder Christmas anew in our time and place, may we find the kind of strength that defies the habits of selfishness, the listlessness of apathy and the despair of fear so we may honour Christmas in our hearts, and keep its defiant spirit all the year.
1 G.K Chesterton, The Spirit of Christmas, selected and arranged by Marie Smith (Dodd, Mead and Company: New York, 1985) p 12.