Friday, 27 December 2013

Why Christmas is no joke

A sermon for Midnight Communion.   Christmas Eve, 2013 

In my sermon tonight I want to make a plea for taking Christmas much more seriously than we do.   I have been thinking about the seriousness of Christmas recently because some members of my research group were successful in getting the British Medical Journal to publish a paper in their Christmas edition – which ‘traditionally’ has a lighter, somewhat jokey, almost April Fool’s Day feel to it.   My research group know what I feel about that!

Perhaps a serious sermon isn't what you want to hear this time of night on Christmas Eve.   Perhaps you were looking for a sermon at least beginning with a joke if not ending on one.   I have a friend who makes a point of putting a joke into every sermon they preach.   Perhaps you were hoping for something a bit deep but not so deep that you’d have to think too much.   Something about Christmas trees, presents, feasting on good food, or some such subject.   There will be time for presents, turkey, even cracker jokes but for a moment let us be serious.  

My thesis is that Christmas for many of us is becoming less and less serious, so that it comes more and more to resemble a carnival – which Christians have traditionally celebrated, either at the beginning of Lent – on Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day – or at the end of summer – at Halloween.    Carnivals are all about having fun– sometimes as a prelude to a fast – Pancake Day – or sometimes as a way of mocking death – Halloween.   Now there is nothing wrong with carnival – it’s just that Christmas is not a carnival.  Although, of course, there is a place for fun at Christmas, because of after all it is a celebration and fun is an essential part of a celebration.   But what we celebrate is serious and not a joke.

It is clear to almost everyone that we have over-commercialised Christmas, so that it’s now more about shopping than almost anything else, at least in the preparations for the day itself.   But shopping can be serious and indeed it is for lots of us: not just those of us who are poor and so need to use our money wisely but also those of us who find our identity in our possessions.   But the commercialisation of Christmas is not my concern tonight and indeed, whilst I think it is a problem, I also think moaning about the commercialisation of Christmas can be overdone    It is right to spend more money at Christmas than on other days.   You need to spend money to celebrate and Christmas as I have already said is a celebration.

John Bell, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day yesterday, was bemoaning the fact that Christmas also seems to have been infantilised and sentimentalised.   

‘Infantilised’ because you might now be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is for children rather than adults.   In fact you hear quite a lot people saying that.   And children do seem to be the major beneficiaries of much of that shopping I have just been talking about.  

John Bell also argues that the representation of the Christmas story by children – wearing fairy wings and nighties or dressing gowns and tea-towels – is becoming the predominant way it is heard.   Admittedly there is a baby involved in the story – but all the other leading characters, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, even the angels were adults rather than children.   And the adult baddies in the story – the Roman Caesar and Herod the Jewish King– seems to get left out of many of these modern nativity plays for fear of upsetting the children.  

The story of the nativity seems to be assuming the status of that other Christmas story – that of Santa Klaus – which is clearly for children.   And this has got me thinking.   Perhaps the story of Santa Klaus is taking over from the real story of Christmas and will become more elaborate as the real story gets simplified.  

John Bell argues that the Christmas story has not only become infantilised it’s become sentimentalised into ‘a cameo of cosiness and candlelight’.   The Christmas story is about God’s love for us but this love is not sentimental fondness but a love that is risky and sacrificial.   A love that is shown by the birth of a baby called Jesus, not in a safe maternity ward, but in a stable: a birth to an unmarried mother rather than a conventional married couple.   A birth which so threaten s the powers that be that the local potentate embarks on a programme of infanticide and the couple are forced to flee to another country.  

Commercialisation, infantilisation and sentimentalisation all threaten to trivialise Christmas.   To remind you Christmas is not primarily about shopping and giving – if anything it’s about receiving.   It’s not just for children it’s for adults as well.   It is about celebrating the birth of Jesus in difficult circumstances not in comfort, let alone luxury. 

So the Christmas story is more adult less sentimental than we might have been led to believe but why is it serious?   Well we might think that the most significant, and therefore serious, event in our lives is our birth, followed closely by our death.   But the Christmas story suggests that it’s not our own birth, death or even what we do in between that gives significance to our lives but the birth, life and death of that baby born in a stable over 2000 years.   An extraordinary claim and, if true, surely something to be taken seriously.  

The names that are given that baby give us some clue as to why we should take his birth seriously.   He was to be called Emmanuel: God with us and Jesus: that is Saviour. 

We can so easily forget the point of Christmas.  And that point can be so easily trivialised.  It is I think worth pausing to remember what it is really all about: the serious, significant and important.