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.

God actually wanted him to be a basketball player and the angels' halos were just an elaborate analogy for a hoop

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

Comments on this post close at 6 pm AEDST

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    • yeah-no says:

      05:23am | 25/12/12

      The power of Christmas in Australia is in the tradition of the holiday at the end of the work and school year, and coming together to celebrate that. It’s also near the summer solstice, reflecting the festival’s origin of the pagan festival in the northern hemisphere.  For more and more of us, there is only a tenuous link to a myth-filled virgin birth millennia ago, in a faraway land most of us have no connection to. Although most Australians still identify as Christian, this is largely symbolic as most never attend church, even today.

      Despite its history, Christmas is a secular occasion in Australia. It’s a day of peace and (hopefully) not overindulgence. Have a great Christmas everyone.

    • Reg Whiteman says:

      06:10am | 25/12/12

      The greatest example of the HPtFtU is to believe in ancient myths and to act on them. The story of the supposed birth in the manger is clearly untrue as Mary and Joseph were supposed to be returning to their home town for a census during the reign of Augustus. But no such census ever took place; and when a census was held, no-one was expected to return to their tribal home town. Thus the story is bullshit; deliberately made up to confirm a prophecy in the Old Testament.

      Insofar as the gospels are concerned, Mark was clearly the first and the others are derived from it; but, as happens, with each retelling it is embellished a bit more here and bit more dramatic there. The gospels are not about the “risky love of god for humanity” but a mish-mash of earlier Jewish prophecies mixed in with well-known allegorical stories from the Greek and Roman legends. It’s the same old story of Hercules, Dionysus, Perseus, Oedipus, Romulus, Mithra et al simply re-packaged and sold to a new audience - a bit like how Bollywood remakes Hollywood classics and adds in lots of singing and dancing and moves the action from Los Angeles to Hyderabad and changes the hero’s name from Sam Spade to Rajiv Patel.

      Christianity rests upon one of the greatest pieces of nonsense ever to exude from a twisted mind and that is the idea of atonement for original sin. According to this myth, Adam and Eve (the first man and woman) ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, were thus expelled, and this “crime” was passed down through every successive generation for ever. Everyone is born with the “stain” of this crime, born rotten, and must have some water poured over them and do all sorts of absurd things to remove the stain. But even the Catholics now admit that evolution is true and thus there never was any Adam and Eve - and so the whole theory of “atonement” has to be false. Admittedly, many of the really whacky sects and preachers, like that idiot Ken Ham, refuse to accept evolution because it sinks the whole leaky boat of the basis of christian belief. Instead, the zealots choose to believe in “intelligent design” or “creationism” and still claim that the earth was created on a Tuesday in October 4004 BC.

      The other wobbly pillar of christianity is the theory of parthenogenesis, or virgin birth, which is completely impossible in placental mammals like Mary or anyone else. It doesn’t happen and it can’t happen - but it’s the sort of thing that would impress the profoundly ignorant and was, of course, drawn from earlier myths such as the story of Hercules. No-one seriously believes that Hercules was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, so why does anyone believe Jesus was the son of YHWH and Mary? Both stories are fiction, pure bullshit, and it’s been a lifelong wonder to me how it is that some people profess to really believe in it.

      Religions prey on the fear of the unknown, the desire for life to be like it is in “The Waltons” or “Happy Days” to match the “ideal” of the perfect existence where everyone is either a really swell guy like John Wayne or a cute and pure girl-next-door like the characters played by June Allison - but it ain’t true! Religions also play on the fear of death and people’s hope that their loved ones really do go to a place with a loving father who can beat the heavyweight champion of the world with the blink of an eye, and who will also take them in when their allotted span is over. But that’s not true either. The dead stay dead and go nowhere, other than to the complete nothingness they were before they were conceived.

      To say that this five millennia accretion of bullshit “still offers the best hope any of us has” is to be completely blind to horrifying truth of these toxic ideas and the way they have played out over that time. The world is awash with suffering, misery and blood because of these absurd ideas; from the genocide of the Mideonites, to the Crusades, the Islamic Conquests, the pyres of the inquisition, the gas chambers, all the way to zealots flying Boeings into buildings and bombing a Bali bar and the persecution of poofters. If that’s the best hope any of us has, then all I can say is, Odin help us!

      Christmas is a time of economic hardship for the battlers, a time when the rich can rub the noses of the poor in it, a time for a huge metaphorical dick-measuring contest; and the invention of the retail industry to sell all sorts of kitsch junk they could never sell at any other time of the year. It’s never been a time of good will in my memory, but a time of anxiety, stress and disappointment and the clearest possible annual demarcation between the haves and the have nots. I just hope I live to see the day when this absurdity is abolished and all religions are accepted for the depraved swindles they are.

    • Gregg says:

      08:27am | 25/12/12

      Well Reg, you still enjoy today and many more the best you can like many battlers and even those with less than battlers will attempt to do.
      And remember, money can only do so much and sometimes the best things in life like a nice greeting and a smile are free.
      Have a good one Reg,

    • Ben says:

      08:39am | 25/12/12

      I take it this bloke hasn’t spent Christmas morning unwrapping his pressies?

    • Stephen T says:

      08:44am | 25/12/12

      Reg, every thing you say is true but why be bound by the past, its what you and every other individual makes of it, what others experience, believe and feel is none of your business.  Your bitterness is your own festering sore no one else’s, its your problem get over it.

      Merry Christmas and find a bit of joy for once.

    • stephen says:

      09:14am | 25/12/12

      Yeah but don’t the ‘forbidden fruit’ sound much better than the forbidden drumstick - or some such thing ?
      It’s a show for the vegan.
      Get with the groove, bro.

    • barry says:

      12:32pm | 25/12/12

      You poor bastard, why do you bother living , if you hate it so much ?

      There is enough misery in the world .If you drag everybody into your cesspool , there is nothing left.

      Nothing is perfect , but Christianity has done more “good” for the world , (and will even help miserable ones like you to possibly get some pleasure in life),than any other form of congregation ever has.(Can you name one that has done more?).

      So, whatever reason you have for the miserable experience you are having on the planet, why not take a day off , and just sit and watch a lot of people who “DO”  find some enjoyment in life .And who knows, you might just find a glimmer of a reason to smile .

      The poor are not excluded from Christmas at all .It costs nothing at all , to make or find a small gift to give to a friend as a gesture of goodwill.

      That’s all that Christmas is about .

      And you , and any others who wish to use the day to vent some miserable perception of the world , or for any other reason at all, that denigrates the one day of the year that people like to set aside to try and get along, are the “really” poor people of this world .

    • Geronimo says:

      06:24am | 25/12/12

      The only Smoke Signal resounding around my Tepee today is Chad Morgan crooning , “Its all so nice in the Nuthouse”.

    • Ravi says:

      06:26am | 25/12/12

      Newsflash for Christians: snakes don’t talk.

    • Chris L says:

      09:53am | 25/12/12

      .... except after the application of LSD.

    • Gregg says:

      07:01am | 25/12/12

      Merry Xmas to all and as for is it too good to be true? You are spot on when you think so Simon for as with
      ” 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. “
      Two fireman responding to a house fire in NY state were shot and killed, two more injured by shots and because the fire could not be put out so quick, in total four houses went up just because of one senseless idiot who will likely not be missed by too many.

      And then there’s the staff of life for some, all those people in Syria just queuing to get some bread and scores taken out, be it by missile strike or a bomb and either way, just how insensitive can people be?

      Not much value on life in either case and many more happening around the planet because of singular and plural HPtFtUs.
      May we be thankful in Australia that we have relative peace even with cunning Santas - and may Nelso Mandela get as well as he can.

      Yes, we can wonder sometimes at God’s role in our lives or those of the many who do suffer at the hands of those with devilish intent.

    • Ravi says:

      08:04am | 25/12/12

      Guess the NRA’s solution to that would be to arm the firemen ... sigh :(

    • ramases says:

      07:41am | 25/12/12

      Your whole article supposes that people believe the fairy story we are fed from the day we can comprehend. To my mind the whole Xmas ethic revolves around the spending of money that people cant really afford, the stuffing of ones face with food one would normally not eat and the meeting of people who would normally not associate with each other.
        Add to this the bleatings from the retailers each and every year that unless we spend, spend, spend then they will once again go broke just like the years before, where they haven’t. And of course who cant forget the sales where inwardly normal people put their minds in neutral and battle to buy stuff they don’t really need at inflated prices that are then discounted, or so they say.
        You want to celebrate Xmas, great go ahead but don’t expect everyone to fall for the show that’s put on or the symbolism that its supposed to represent.

    • barry says:

      08:20am | 25/12/12

      Just try and enjoy “one day” in your life ramases.
      That’s what Christmas is about .
      One day of the year when people get together , share gifts , share good times , and wish each other well for the year ahead.
      The crap you talk about goes on all year round , just have a day off , and try to find some joy in life.

    • Jack says:

      10:27am | 25/12/12

      To my mind your whole story is…what?
      Sound to me that it is Christmas everyday of the year…..
      we shoudn’t have any holidays….public holidays…. or better
      we shouldn’t work but go to the house of God all day, prey all day ...
      than what??????......did I miss anything?

    • ramases says:

      03:22pm | 25/12/12

      Barry, I enjoy most days of my life especially those like my birthday and my wedding anniversaries and kids birthdays as they actually mean something not this airy fairy clap trap we are supposed to endorse.You want to believe then that’s your prerogative but please keep it to yourself as there are millions out there who think its all a bit much even to the point of stupidity.

    • marley says:

      08:23am | 25/12/12

      I see nothing wrong with the message of “goodwill to all men (and women)” -  whether you’re a believer or not, tolerance and love are good things at this or any other time of the years.  So, have a merry Christmas and/or holiday, Punchers, and best wishes to our illustrious editors/moderators/ringmasters..

    • The Cat from Downunder says:

      08:36am | 25/12/12

      It does not matter whether you believe the Christmas story or not - what matters is whether you believe in the ethics and morals of Christianity as it really is. That’s a very simple message indeed “love one another”.
      I know atheists who celebrate Christmas and “Christians” who ignore it. It is up to the individual. Just don’t lose sight of the underlying message.
      If you are celebrating then enjoy!
      If you are not then good wishes anyway.

    • Lee says:

      12:39pm | 25/12/12

      Hear, hear. Happy Christmas to a kindred spirit smile

    • Sandra says:

      10:44am | 25/12/12

      What about that
      “The head imam of Sydney’s Lakemba mosque, Sheikh Yahya Safi, has effectively declared a fatwa on Christmas, urging his Sydney flock to take no part in anything to do with Christmas.”

      Who knows what will happen to Xmas one day with so many coming here taking over the destiny of the country without any worries whatsoever.

    • Lee says:

      12:44pm | 25/12/12

      And I thought Christmas was about peace and goodwill!  Stop spreading fear and loathing, even for just one day.

    • iansand says:

      10:44am | 25/12/12

      Christianity is a fine way to live your life, whether based on the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. 

      But it is a fine way to live a life without the need for a pat on the head from a superior being to confirm you are on the right track, or the fear on eternal damnation if you stray.  Grown ups can live a good life without the carrot of supernatural reward or the stick of eternal hellfire.

    • Sandra says:

      10:44am | 25/12/12

      What about that
      “The head imam of Sydney’s Lakemba mosque, Sheikh Yahya Safi, has effectively declared a fatwa on Christmas, urging his Sydney flock to take no part in anything to do with Christmas.”

      Who knows what will happen to Xmas one day with so many coming here taking over the destiny of the country without any worries whatsoever.

    • TChong says:

      12:51pm | 25/12/12

      1st para - Factually wrong.. The statement was not made by the Iman, he , and the vast majority of the rest of the muslim community rejected the call.
      2nd para- sorry to say it on this day of good will , but unless you are joking,, you are a bigotted idiot.
      Be afarid Sandra, very afraid.

    • Achmed says:

      01:06pm | 25/12/12

      TChong - you are wrong.  The fact the Imam declared the fatwa was well reported in the media and was the subject of an article on Punch.

      It was condemned by other muslims

    • Come again? says:

      01:07pm | 25/12/12

      Sandra, isn’t one post enough? Please reveal the full facts and, that is : the Grand Imam as well as other Imams and Muftis have rebutted this “fatwa”. As I said, do NOT spread you ill will and hatred, especially not on Christmas Day!!

    • iansand says:

      03:11pm | 25/12/12

      A “fatwa” is a religious decree.  Nothing more. nothing less.  Much like a Papal bull.  The Pope has issued a “fatwa” in relation to abortion and use of contraception.

      See.  That wasn’t so scary, was it?  Daft perhaps, but not scary.

    • TChong says:

      04:21pm | 25/12/12

      Apologies for name callingI I would like to suggest , instead that your fears, if thought thru , are unfounded.
      Achmed- I do believe you may be misinformed.  Multi news sources have reported that a junior staffer was responsible.

    • Berk says:

      02:15pm | 25/12/12

      Halleluja! The Christ is born!! The child God is here! Hallelujah!

    • Interested observer says:

      02:24pm | 25/12/12

      Achmed - yes the fact was reported in the media.  I read the whole article.

      The explanation was that a staff member had copied and pasted a series of recommendations from an overseas Islamic site.

      I find this believable - the internet is a grab bag of roses with quite a few hidden thorns.


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