Plastic Christmas – in more ways than one. Tinsel, credit cards maxed out on gifts, pressure to perform in the presents game, lighted figures of elves and Rudolph and Santa and bunnies and whatever. I guess it’s standard fare in sermons and Christmas essays to bemoan the commercialization and secularization of Christmas. Mustn’t be offensive – call it Winterval or Xmas. But even if we turn from Elves and Santa and Rudolph to nativity scenes, we still have a plastic Christmas so often. Often shepherds and wise men and stables have the same clichéd fairy story feel as Santa and his little helpers. We tell the story, but what does it have to do with our daily lives? The prospect or reality of job cuts and financial hardship. Maybe the pain of loss, and pressures that seem intolerable, with no way out. Or maybe there is personal conflict and loss of reputation in some way. What do we do? How do we live Christmas out as Christians?
I want to look at these issues in two ways. Firstly I want to set the scene for you and talk not too much about the moments of Jesus’ birth and the highlights of the Nativity story as about the situation he was born into and grew up in. Nazareth – typical of the many rural villages in Galilee. A couple of hundred houses, maybe. A synagogue / village community centre – and a rabbi if they were lucky. A village surrounded by a maze-like patchwork of little plots of land, half an acre here, a half there. Each family would own one or two or three of the plots scattered around the village. That area of Galilee had a rich fertile soil – it was a breadbasket. It was also why it got taxed so much. If there was a war (not uncommon) or another reason for a tax-rise then Galilee and it’s peasants copped it. Even at the best times, the yield was barely enough to feed the family and their animals and pay the taxes – to Rome, to the Temple at Jerusalem, to local landlords. And what happened in the not best of times? Well, you put your farm in hoc to buy the seed for the next year. And if the next year didn’t go well – blight, or drought, or famine, well bye-bye farmland, maybe bye-bye house. Landless peasants could only find often insecure work on the big farming estates of the nobility who they had borrowed money from and lost their farms to, or as labourers on the big building projects in cities like the nearby Sepphoris (2 miles from Nazareth) or cities further away when work there finished. When Jesus told his parable about the men hired who were waiting in the marketplace for someone to employ them on a day-by-day basis, it would have been a regular sight or experience for his listeners. And there was a reason why the gospels report such a huge number of blind, deaf and lame people being healed. The ongoing near-starvation state from a young age for so many meant that people were more susceptible to congenital diseases that caused these disabilities. When Mary and Joseph went down to Bethlehem, it was because of the census, but a factor in their staying is likely to be that here was an opportunity near the bustling holy city of Jerusalem, to have a more financially stable environment with better work and business opportunities.
This was the environment Jesus was born into, not a cutesy tale of angels and shepherds and wise men on camels. Speaking of which, the gifts of the wise men would have been a massive boon. Selling the gifts would have meant a literal god-send in terms of financial income. That’s the practical realities of the Christmas story – not too far from our own day-to-day experiences – except that we have it easier. There wasn’t any welfare state for them to fall back on, unlike us. And there’s more.
Have you ever noticed that one of the most explicit prophecies about Jesus’ birth does so in the context of military war and conquest? Micah 5.2 comes after a number of verses, including 5.1 which talk of war and of defeat of Israel’s ruler. Well, you remember all about the crushing taxes in Galilee. Sometimes it got too much – sometimes politics robbed the local nobles and landlords of their land, or the taxes were too much even for them, so there were several revolts centred on Sepphoris, ruthlessly crushed. Mercenary armies rampaged from the coast eastwards to retake Sepphoris, burning villages and raping women as they went. And Nazareth was right in the path of those armies, just a couple of miles West of Sepphoris. There were lines of crucified rebels along the streets. Stores and fields plundered. This is the reality of the times of the first Christmas. And it is in this context that the stories of angel announcements and shepherds and wise men should be placed.
And that is the point. It was to no fairy-tale world that Christ came and was made flesh. My concern about the plastic-ness of even a religious Christmas with nativity and all the rest is that it has become a myth, from a different kind of world than ours – a world of looming economic difficulties, potential unemployment, increasing financial pressures. But as we have seen it was precisely to such a situation that Jesus was made incarnate. But if we are supposed to be followers of Christ, in some measure like him being God enfleshed in the world, being a witness, how do we do it? For that, we must turn to Mary. She lived among all these pressures – no other-worldly saint. Probably she had an arranged marriage. Betrothed in a highly conservative society, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to her, accepting the message that she was to give birth was to accept shame and dishonour and risk. We mentioned one possible reason for Joseph and Mary to remain in Bethlehem as being economic, another is that they could have a fresh start and abandon a situation that for them was riven with gossip and probably ostracization. Mary said yes, because she believed God, she had faith, despite the pitfalls being evident to her. So it is with us – to bear Christ means to trust God and, like Mary, to value Him and His word and promise more than reputation, comfort, social acceptance. The angel had told her that she was the means through which the hope of Israel would come, and she believed. So it is with us, what sustains us as we bear Christ is faith in the character of God and obedience to His word and promise, and a looking for the hope, not just of Israel, but of the whole earth and creation – the return of that same Jesus, not to a little Bethlehem stable as a babe, but to the whole world as the King of Kings, to establish his Kingdom rule and true justice.
Have you noticed that in the epistles in the New Testament, there is often the three-fold group of faith, hope and love. There is a saying that an early church father attributed to Jesus, that is not found in the gospels. It said something like ‘Take care of faith and hope, through which are born love for God and humanity that brings eternal life’ Jesus is that eternal life, for He is love. And love is born from faith and hope. Why is that? Because if we do not have faith in someone other and greater than us who has our best interests at heart, then the pressures of life will be unbearable, but with the faith in that love, we can bear all things. Love, says Paul, bears all things. And without a sure future hope to hold on to, all we have is here and now, and if we feel we have no faithful Father to trust, the only one to look out for us is us. Thus we look to our own gain and our own advantage and when push comes to shove, we have no room to love others. And if we do not truly believe in our hearts that we have a faithful and loving Father in heaven, we cannot and will not love God. Mary loved God, and Mary valued above all else God’s gifts and promise, even above her life and good name. Faith and hope sustained her, and that is what we need to seek. We already have them, they are there in at least a seed form, and there in the promises of the bible, but we have to nurture them, to take care of them for them to birth fruit in us, just as with her own body Mary sustained the unborn Jesus. Faith and hope will bring forth love, will bring forth the character of Jesus.
And just like Mary, God will give us little oases of earthly support – of those who have gone before us, and those who stand by us. Firstly, God, through Gabriel directed Mary to go to her cousin Elizabeth, old and barren, with the promise that she was no longer without child, and it was so. She was helped to believe because she went and saw a miracle that gave her faith and courage to face her own situation. She had evidence to back up her claim and sustain her. She went back home to gossip when she had to, but with this support, and she gained the support of Joseph, who also believed the angelic message. We need to obey God when he commands us to meet with other believers who can support and inspire us, who experience the provision of God, to build up our faith, just as happened to Mary.
So if you are stumbling in doubt and darkness, if you feel that Christmas really has nothing to do with the pressures of your mundane daily life, that it is a cute plastic fairy tale, then remember these things. Remember the kind of life and circumstance into which God sent His Son, along with the angels and the miracles. Brutal, relentlessly crushing, designed to snuff out hope. And yet there was hope – hope in the promise of God and his provision and loving nature. To be able to love in a world that opposes love, receive love from the Father who loves you so much – you must take the time to take care of faith and hope, nurture them within as Mary did Jesus, and take courage from those who are ahead of you in the journey of faith, and those that God gives to stand by you. Value God and his promises and His presence above all other things, above your own interests, just like Mary did, and you will bear and shine out Jesus in your own life.