“The Perfect Christmas??”
Monday 24 December 2018
I’d like to share with you part of a Christmas Message sent out some years ago by Rowan Williams, when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote:
“You know how every year you say, ‘This year I’m going to get Christmas sorted out. I’ll have the cards written by December the first and I’ll work out properly what we can afford and do the presents in time, and I’ll know exactly how many people are coming for meals and when, and…all the rest of it. Lurking somewhere in our minds is the idea of the perfect Christmas”.
“And every year, mysteriously, all our plans seem to evaporate and it’s the usual mess, with all the last minute panic. There’ll be a good few people concerned just now about what they can afford for a start”.
“Yet it’s odd in a way, this business of Perfect Christmasses. The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events – a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that’s got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there…Not exactly a perfect holiday”.
“But it tells us something really vital. We try to plan all this stuff and stay in charge, and too often (especially with advertisers singing in our ears the whole time) we think that unless we can cook the perfect dinner, plan the perfect wedding, organise the perfect Christmas, we somehow don’t really count or we can’t hold our heads up”.
“But in the complete mess of the first Christmas, God says, ‘Don’t worry – I’m not going to wait until you’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before I get involved with you. I’m already there for you in the middle of it all, and if you just let yourself lean on me a bit instead of trying to make yourself and everything around you perfect by your own efforts, everyone will feel a little more of my love flowing”.
I think that the Rowan Williams really hit the mark in what he warned against. The whole portrayal of what Christmas should be all about in the advertisements that we are flooded with at this time of year is one of happy smiling self-contented people having a simply peachy time.
And yet we know that it is not the way it really is for most of us. All of the expectations that we place upon ourselves and others makes this time of the year very stressful and anything but peaceful and happy for the majority of people. And it is well for the Archbishop to remind us that story of the first Christmas is hardly one of everything running smoothly.
And yet it is into that imperfect world that God has seen fit to enter decisively in the birth of his son, Jesus of Nazareth.
I’ve always had a problem with the level of sentimentality that we have allowed to grow up around the Christmas story. We all carry images of the nativity scene in our heads through our exposure to carols and art. We imagine animals lowing, angels singing merrily on high, and shepherds bowing humbly before the Christ child.
But we need to remember that the birth of Jesus is not a sanitised event. I am one of those men who has had the privilege of being present at the birth of my children. The truth of the matter is that when a human enters the world there is pain and drama and blood and yuk. All of which no doubt accompanied Jesus’ birth.
The animals that were in the manger were probably as smelly and rambunctious as any domestic animal confined to a small space. And on the subject of smelly, it’s a fair bet that the average Palestinian shepherd in those days would not have bathed as regularly as we might consider it polite these days.
And so, Rowan Williams does well to highlight the absence of perfection in the first Christmas, but equally he is right to highlight that God did not wait for a perfect set of circumstances to crash into this world of ours through the birth of Jesus.
It is a lesson that we do well to take with us throughout the whole year, not just at Christmas. No one needs to be perfect to invite God into their hearts. In fact, St Paul expresses the reality very powerfully in his letter to the Ephesians. He writes:
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
So for Paul, not only is it not possible for us to make ourselves worthy of God, we don’t even need to. All that is required is for us to turn to God through Jesus in faith. Everything is then gift – completely undeserved. Gift.
And nowhere do we see clearer evidence of God’s willingness to get involved in the messiness of human life than in the account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Don’t delay turning wholeheartedly to God until you think you are perfect. Do it now. Right where you are in your life on this Christmas eve.
My prayer for each one of you is that you will experience the presence of Jesus Christ this Christmas in the midst of your imperfections and stress and worries of life. And further, that you will take the experience with you into the year ahead and grow in love and trust of the God who loves you so much in the first place.
May the reality of God’s never-ending grace lead you and your families to experience true joy this Christmas.
Fr Allan Paulsen