Believer or not, Christmas has a message for us all
In singer Paul Kelly’s 1996 hit How to Make Gravy, Joe calls Dan from prison just before Christmas and, imagining the family preparing to gather over the traditional roast in summer heat without him, he passes on his expert advice on how to get the gravy just right.
I know someone who went through that very experience, so I feel the pathos of the song every time I hear it. “Tell ‘em all I’m sorry, I really screwed up this time,” says Joe.
In his latest book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, British writer Francis Spufford says what we celebrate each Christmas - the birth of Christ - is all about the divine response to what he bluntly describes as “the human propensity to F#%k things up” or HPtFtU as he subsequently calls it throughout the book.
We all know the HPtFtU and a moment’s self-reflection will tell us that it’s not only other people afflicted with this condition, but also that to varying degrees, we all possess it.
This year the fortunate ones among us will get to enjoy the fine things that Christmas can offer - good food, family, rest and summer fun. No doubt there’ll be plenty to be grateful for. But the HPtFtU will never be far away; grimly evident once Aunty Rita has had too much eggnog or cousin Tom has sworn at your sister and stormed out. Or when you find yourself on the verandah in the late afternoon once everyone has left, regretting careless words or a missed opportunity to finally say sorry to your Dad.
When we feel the ache that comes with all that it means to be human, Christianity doesn’t tell us that all is well with the world and some positive thinking will get us through the coming year. It doesn’t present us with an ideology or an action plan we can implement to lead us safely to our hoped-for destination. Instead, it tells a story.
If we can ever look past the sentimentalised and sickly sweet nativity scenes now mostly serving as kitsch for large retailers to the heart of that ancient story, we’ll see what is portrayed by the writers of the gospels is the risky love of God for humanity.
Not everyone buys this story and it’s easy to see why. Astonishing in its audacity, it’s the story of God with a human face entering the mess in the most vulnerable manner imaginable. You can’t get much more vulnerable than a baby born in a cave to an unmarried teenaged mother surrounded by farm animals in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. This vulnerability serves to place God in the centre of the human drama to show his affinity with every person’s struggle.
The account of the famous birth at Bethlehem makes a claim that’s absolutely category shattering. On Christmas day, so we are told, the infinite became finite; the immortal became mortal; the supernatural became natural; the invulnerable became something you can cuddle and burp… and hurt. This child depicts a God willing to place himself among people like you and me and our all too human propensities—something for which he would pay dearly.
The story, if you believe it, is about a possibility that springs from a promise attached to that baby, of new beginnings and second chances. American author Frederick Buechner says that the Christian story is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that all of us have the HPtFtU, that there is a corner of our hearts that remains dark and that when we look in the mirror we see at least “eight parts chicken, phoney, slob.”
But Buechner adds that it is also the news that us “slobs and phoneys” are “loved anyway, cherished, forgiven”, and that in some mysterious way that’s what the baby wrapped in swaddling cloth is all about.
Is it too good to be true? Many will think so. But on Christmas morning millions will still gather, mindful of their own propensity to make a mess of things, and therefore drawn to the possibility that this story still offers the best hope any of us has.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity
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