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Christmas; Nicety or Necessity?

December 18th, 2012

I think it’s fair to say people of all ages who’ve lived through 2012 will remember it as a good year, full of uplifting and memorable events like Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win, the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Felix Baumgartner’s space leap. It’s been year that has displayed the best of human achievement and endeavour.

So sad then that 2012 has proved to have a sting in its tail.

Another school shooting, in Newtown Connecticut, where 26 people, mainly children, were needlessly and brutally murdered. This event, just as all its predecessors from Dunblane to Columbine, sent shockwaves across the world, and left us asking once again; how can this kind of thing happen?

The Newtown massacre was all the crueller as it happened so close to the festive season, when people are busy making preparations, buying presents and looking forward to spending time with their families. But Christmas is a time of hope, peace and goodwill to all men isn’t it? Surely Christmas can offer us some hope, some respite from such evil… can’t it?

I would say with confidence that it can. But not the Christmas offered by our culture. That Christmas has become a nicety. My 3 year old illustrated this when I asked her recently what she was looking forward to most about Christmas. She replied ‘Father Christmas giving me lots of presents’. Alongside momentarily making me feel like a parenting failure, she had unwittingly summed up what Christmas has become – the shallow anticipation of material gain, along with warm and cosy feelings and the hope of having a ‘nice’ time. The problem is, niceties cannot answer big questions.

The true Christmas story speaks God’s love, proximity and identification with humanity right into the heart of Newtown, Connecticut. You see, from the moment Jesus was born, he was being hunted by King Herod; a despot who was nervous about a prophesied Messiah being born on his patch. This meant Jesus, having come into the world in the most chaotic and wretched way imaginable, was now a refugee, his parents having to flee to Egypt until Herod’s death. But there was significant collateral damage: ‘Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2.16).

The slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten, often glossed over. How many nativity scenes include Herod’s soldiers alongside the shepherds and wise men? How many times does ‘The Coventry Carol’ feature in a Christmas service?

Yet it’s integral to the Christmas story, which displays that Jesus’ life was one of identification with human suffering  (‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain’ Isaiah 53.3). It’s also important because events like Newtown remind us that the spirit of Herod is still active in the world. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, perhaps unknowingly, highlighted this when he stated “Evil visited this community today”. How true. And such evil. But this isn’t the evil of one ‘loner’ who we can distance from the rest of humanity and therefore cling to our supposed inherent goodness. This is the evil of the same ‘spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Ephesians 2.2) and who holds the world under his control (1 John 5.19).

Nice Christmassy message? Not very cosy and warm and ‘nice’ but then neither is the gospel a nice message, neither is God ‘nice’ in the Santa Claus sense. He is good, and the gospel is good news to a humanity that has rejected its creator, gone its own way and therefore suffers the dual consequence of being morally adrift and open to God’s judgment without a plea. The only way to overcome the awful darkness that we see displayed through our own lives and through atrocities is to believe the message; that darkness is overcome through the death and resurrection of Bethlehem’s baby. For ‘the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 John 3.8), and; ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15).

We need saving, we need rescuing from evil. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He is both the Saviour and the Rescuer of the world. That is why Christmas is a matter of necessity for us. We need it. So let’s tell it boldly, and celebrate the real hope that came into the world through that baby in the manger.

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