(The singer above is Majida El Roumi Baradhy, a Lebanese soprano and UN Goodwill Ambassador.)
A good friend of mine shared with me his Christmas homily. I thought it was too good to keep to myself; so I am sharing it with you – though he prefers to remain anonymous. The homily touches on how the “religious observance” vs commercialisation of Christmas contestation has masked the radical message of Christianity against the “domination systems” of our world.
Paul Harvey first aired this modern day parable of the Christmas story in 1965:
The Man and the Birds
The man to whom I’m going to introduce you to was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper.
Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.
Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in.
So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realised that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safety, warmth…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
(The man grasped the reason Jesus was born)
I think the challenge for us is not really in the believing and the understanding of the incarnation but in the understanding (with reference to the parable above) od:
i) what being out in the cold is,
ii) the “way to the safe warm barn”, and
iii) what the “safe warm barn” really means to us.
The New Testament scholar, theologian and author Marcus Borg noted:
“For many centuries – now almost a thousand years – the most common forms of Christianity have emphasised that Jesus’s primary significance is that he died to pay for our sins. This notion affects the meaning of Christmas: Christmas is the birth of the one who will save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven. It results in a radical domestication and individualisation of the story of Jesus and Christmas.”
And therefore, religiously and traditionally, it has been understood that Jesus came to redeem sinners (being in the cold), he came so that we would be saved and go to heaven (the warm and safe barn). And the way to that barn was to follow him in everything.
But this has been interpreted as following religious practices (i.e. preoccupation with devotions, rites and rituals, the liturgy that smacks of “performance and drama” of the liturgy, paraphernalia, etc.…you know what I mean), which borders on religiosity. A genuine introspection into how the season of Advent was celebrated perhaps can give us some indication of where we are in our perception of Christmas.
Very often the vilification of the commercialisation of Christmas has perhaps rendered some degree of impunity to some of our “religious practices” even though these practices do not help us experience the true spirit of Christmas. But it must be noted that neither the commercialisation of Christmas nor the religiosity of Christmas has diminished the good cultural practices of Christmas.
Some of these practices are recent innovations, e.g. the first commercially produced Christmas cards appeared in 1873. So too the buying of Christmas gifts is a product of the late 1800s and took a while to become widespread. The practice of many of these customs must be commended.
To state the obvious, Christmas has rich cultural meanings. It is the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, even by many who are not Christian. At its best, its cultural meanings are about generosity, gift-giving, goodwill, and gatherings with family and friends.
What is the message and meaning of Christmas? What is the spirit or the spirituality of Christmas? It can include the above cultural practices but it adds quite a different emphasis.
According the Marcus Borg, Christmas matters for Christians because Jesus matters for Christians. And what was Jesus about? His message, his passion, was about the coming of the kingdom of God and the birth of a world of justice and peace. Of course, the kingdom of God is also about our individual transformation through loving the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love one another. It is about our transformation and the transformation of the world.
The good news of Christmas is that He became like us so that we can be like Him, think like Him, see like Him, feel like Him, speak like Him… live like Him knowing that we reside in His heart and that we carry in us his divine spark. It is also an affirmation of the life of transformation we are already living and an assurance of his grace and strength to carry on in hope.
And I think – as in the parable – this is what it means to be saved from the cold (from indifference, injustice and a lack of peace) and make our way (transformation of self) to the warm safe barn (a transformed world in the here and now).
Jesus is light in the darkness, the path of liberation, the way of return, the Word of God and Spirit of God embodied in a human life. In him we see God’s passion for a different kind of world here below, here and now. That’s what his coming and Christmas are about.