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The magic of Christmas

"If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” “Uncle!” pleaded the nephew. “Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” (Charles Dickens, from A Christmas Carol)
Bah, humbug! -- Would that 'they' would let me be to keep Christmas my own way. But every year the same! Grrr. 'Be here', 'eat this', 'sing that', 'feel joy', 'talk to these people', 'smile now', 'say thank-you', 'wear this hat'... ('Drink up' which stage, it's usually '*sigh*, well, maybe I will...' :-/ ).

If there's one thing that really riles me this time of year it's the 'magic' of it all (ferociously, disgustingly monetised by the advertising industry). Last year, I sat through 'Arthur Christmas' -- the then-current fun, family-friendly, fatiguingly-fatuous festive flick. To be quite frank, had I kids, I'd rather stick them in front of Seven Psychopaths than this deplorably shallow, hope-sapping excuse for seasonal entertainment. [1] Oh no! A present's gone missing! A child is on the brink of Christmas morning disappointment! Dad's losing his touch...which brother will prove himself rightful heir to Santa's lauded position by rescuing Christmas? Of course, it's the bumbling, weedy, but passionately sincere younger brother -- with the help of Grand-Santa (who's particularly excited to get out all the old, pre-modernisation present-delivering technology) and an aggravatingly enthusiastic elf. And yes, after a series of hilarious misadventures (including being mistaken for aliens and causing an international military incident), and lots of overly-simplified soul-searching (it's ambition vs altruism -- wonder which will win?) the intended bicycle arrives with its initially overlooked recipient just seconds before sunrise -- the nick of time. Everybody's hiding in a nearby cupboard to witness the look of delight on the face of said recipient, and, afterwards, all the right people get promotions. Heartwarming.

Heartwarming? What about the children whose parents can't afford for Santa to exist? What does a fairy story about 'every child matters' mean in world where, judging by what goes on in practice, some children apparently do not matter so much as other children? The film generates a highly-idealised alternate reality whilst spectacularly failing to offer any sort of reasonable hope in the face of what the world is really like. Far worse than that, it contributes to destroying the little true hope which does exist: most children in the world are suffering; Santa is not going to rescue any of them; we privileged few, who might after all be in a position to do something, are in danger of blinding ourselves to this need and responsibility; warm-fuzzy-seasonal-feeling-generating films like Arthur Christmas reinforce that blindness.

I particularly recoil against false hope. Seems to me the world is definitely a miserable enough place without it. I've been reading Jeremiah lately; don't feel I've got to grips with very much of it yet but one thing which strikes me so far is the proliferation, among his contemporaries, of 'lying prophets' -- prophets who preached a highly appealing message of peace in accordance with what their audience (the people of Judah) wanted to hear. But it was their own words they were speaking, not (as they claimed) those of God. And there was no truth in them: God had revealed to Jeremiah that Judah was under judgement for her sin and rebellion. Jeremiah prophesied accordingly -- tough times ahead (eventually realised in the exile to Babylon) and a call to repentance and righteousness -- which made him extremely unpopular and the target of much persecution. He remained steadfast, though, by God's strength, imploring the people to discern reality from wish-fulfilment:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? (Jeremiah 23:16-18)
Even though the God-given words which Jeremiah spoke were not what the people wanted to hear, they were, importantly, hope-filled nonetheless -- in such a way that would be revealed as true in the events to follow, by contrast with the lying prophets whose optimistic messages came to nothing. For example, when Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon, Hananiah proclaimed that the exile would be short:
"Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord's house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 28:2-4) 
Jeremiah's eventual response brings hard words for Hananiah:
“Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’” In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died. (Jeremiah 28:15-17) 
Jeremiah also brings a message for exiled Judah, in place of Hananiah's false message. It is not easy to hear; it tells them that they will be seventy years in Babylon. But it is full of hope -- true, God-revealed, God-actuated hope -- and of wise instruction. They are to build lives for themselves, to make the best of it where they are, to "seek the welfare of the city [...] and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7). So, even in the midst of painful, undesirable circumstances, they are far from abandoned, nor are they excluded from experiencing good things in life, even though these might not manifest in the way they would have chosen for themselves. Moreover, the situation is to be temporary -- there is an end in sight:
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
Hope that we invent for ourselves is no hope at all. This is why I can't stand Christmas, as it stands. It is not as simple as disapproval -- I don't have a bee in my bonnet about 'all those heathens paying no heed to the Reason for the Season'; I am not in the slightest bit offended by the secularisation of festivities -- let anyone who wants to party, party -- call it Winterval, by all means; I see no need to punish those for whom it 'means nothing' by depriving them of the chance to spend some quality time with their families and eat some good food. [2] Nor is my struggle with Christmas borne purely from my inability to have fun and my jealousy that everyone else is (though over the years that has probably played a not-insignificant role... ;-) ).

Rather, I am wearied by the falseness, by the hollow magic, by the empty promises. Christmas has become a day, or a month of days, for trying to gather up and consolidate all of the good and beautiful and special things in our lives -- all the things we have, and all the things we long for -- which we do with such intensity, such desperation, such vain optimism that we will somehow be able to cement them and extract from them (or instill in them) a sense of meaning to make the rest of the year more bearable... If only we can make everything beautiful enough, and special enough, and memorable enough... Our relationships with family and friends become strained and unnatural under the pressure to get along just perfectly -- we silently collude in staging an elaborate pageant: there is one correct way for every event, every conversation, every moment to play out. We are panicked and saddened if it isn't realised in that way, and if it does we are disappointed to find that it has achieved nothing concrete or lasting. And then there's the stuff we give one another, which demonstrates how little we 'get' one another, and diminishes us a little every time and reminds us how alone we are. (A high price to pay for 'stuff', if you ask me...)

This is why, at Christmas, I need Jesus more than ever. My ongoing examination of the evidence increasingly convinces me that in him is the basis for for true, concrete, God-given hope -- unlike any the world has to offer or which we could muster up for ourselves.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
As I remember and reflect on "Immanuel -- God with us" I pray: "Dear God...You know what I'm like at Christmas...please -- I can't do this on my own -- please be with me." So, in a funny sort of way, my festive gloom prompts me to engage all the more powerfully with the hope-giving reality of the Incarnation. Maybe I 'get' Christmas more than I realise...

[1] It's remarks like these which guarantee that no-one will ever ask me to babysit ;-)

[2] Of course, all this isn't to say that I don't think it's an immensely good thing when people do take time at this time of year to think about Jesus; I'd encourage anyone to confront themselves afresh with the claims of the Bible and see what they make of him. I also like that it is much easier to go to church at Christmas, 'cause nobody thinks anything of it. Whatever the reason -- tradition, curiosity, a genuine desire to know more, or just a chance to laugh at Christians -- there's certainly plenty of opportunity this time of year, without it needing to feel like a big deal. (Not that it should ever feel like a big deal; seems to me it's normally us Christians who generate the awkwardness by thinking or acting as though "getting people through the door" was some sort of victory, or marker for progress).


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