Meanings of Christmas: A time not to forget the suffering figure on the cross

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The Independent Online
How about this for a Christmas news-flash: "Three Iranian diplomats arrived this evening in Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli president. After consulting government religious advisers, they went on to a secret destination, leaving senior polit icians alarmed. According to one report, they were spotted in the small town of Bethlehem, which has a long history of opposition to the current regime. Government sources were last night playing down the event; but the Cabinet is meeting in emergency se ssion,and the strange visit will be high on the agenda."

With a news item like that, you might not even notice if the weather forecast said it was going to be a pink Christmas instead of a white one. This is serious stuff. The birth of Jesus was not a romantic fairy tale or soap opera. It was an event which frightened the people in power.

But doesn't that miss the point? Isn't the thing about Christmas that it takes our ordinary lives and shines a halo around them? Three kings from Persian lands afar, bringing rich gifts to a newborn king. Like all good soap operas, this story has a mixture of royalty, romance, intrigue, and danger. We set it all in a safe framework: candles, choirs and carols neutralise the shock value of the story. Many people like it that way.

If we think about the meaning of Christmas we often get stuck - either in the romantic, nostalgic Christmas-card scene, or in the nitty-gritty of politics. People who like a fairy-tale Christmas get cross when political preachers try to take it over. People who regularly face the plight of the homeless and the hungry get cross when Christmas is trivialised into romantic escapism. We often end up with the worst of both worlds: a vaguely religious glow that lasts an hour or so, and a political conscience that hurts for a minute or so.

Christmas declares that God wants the best of both worlds. The romantic approach, at its best, is a way of saying that there is more to reality than meets the eye. And of course that is true. The political approach is a way of saying that religion is no use if it doesn't work at street-level. And of course that is true too. The message of Christmas picks up both of these and puts them in a bigger frame altogether. Beyond what we can touch and see stands not a rosy glow of nostalgia, but the God of Christmas, the God who loved, and loves, and will go on loving. He is there. He is not a fantasy. He is not an escapist God, and he does not want his people to be escapists either.

That is why, at Christmas, we rightly use exotic language. How often do we say we "adore" something or someone - and really mean it? In one favourite carol we sing, several times over, "O come, let us adore him." That is not the language of cosy romanticescapism. It is the language of passion. Christmas tells us that God is passionate about us; Christmas is there to help us to be passionate about God. God gives us Jesus not so that we can simply look up to him as a good and great man; not so that we can add his name to a list of remarkable figures of history; but so that we can adore him as we never adored anyone before.

If that sounds a bit over the top, take time over the Christmas break to read through one of the Gospels slowly. Imagine yourself as one of Jesus's followers, going around with him, listening to what he is saying to people, listening for what he might besaying to you. Let him break through the busyness that we often use, not least at Christmas itself, as a screen to hide behind. God does not love the screens we put up. He loves the real you; and at Christmas he invites the real you to love him in return. That's not romantic escapism. That's reality - the deepest, richest reality we will ever know.

But once we are in touch with reality, then we are free to serve God by giving that same love to other people. God's Christmas love reaches out to the people who, like Jesus from the day he was born, are homeless and helpless. How does it reach out? By those who adore the Christ-child doing something about the problem. That is not mere politics. It is love. It is reality. It is God's word turning into flesh.

Tom Wright