If you walk around my home in the typical run-up to Christmas, you’re going to see a bit of an alliterative theme going on in the decor. Cosy reds and golds lit by flickering candlelight. Carols playing in the background, cakes and cookies baking in the oven. There’s a serious overload of cuteness in my nativity scene, in the cherubic angels scattered here and there. It’s Christmas with a capital C.
And then of course, there’s the Christ Child at the heart of it all, making this the perfect celebration for little ones. Toddlers peer solemnly at the babe in the nativity scene manger, school kids dress up for Christmas pageants.
“Christmas is really for the children,” says Steve Turner in his satirical poem. He gently mocks those who forget the link between Christmas, and Easter -- which is “not really for the children unless accompanied by a cream-filled egg. It has whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body snatching. It involves politics, God and the sins of the world.” Nervous people, and children, he says, would “do better to wait for a re-run of Christmas without asking too many questions about what Jesus did when he grew up or whether there's any connection.”
And because we don't want to be those people, we take care to remind ourselves of the “reason for the season”; that Jesus was “born to die”; that the Babe of Bethlehem grew up to be the crucified Messiah. “It’s not just about the manger where the baby lay...” sing the Ball Brothers in harmony. “It’s about the cross, it’s about my sin; It’s about how Jesus came to be born once so that we could be born again.” And so, we try and remember that the shadow of the cross lies over the stable.
Yet, we try to restrain any darkness within Easter's part in the story; keep it far from the cosy comfort of Christmas. After all, the miracle of the resurrection emerges from the midst of the death and despair of Gethsemane, of Calvary, of Golgotha. But Christmas? The mystery of the incarnation is nestled amidst gift-wrap, the manger smothered by tinsel, the stable turned into pageant stage with perfectly atmospheric lighting, cherubs covering up the shadows and dark corners.
But 2016 has been a hard year, a dark year in my own life and in the wider world around. I’ve struggled with the results of desertion and a difficult divorce. News headlines announce war and economic downturns, refugee flights and terror attacks, political disarray and despair. In a Delhi often blanketed by dingy smog this winter, it comes then as a revelation -- and a relief -- to explore and acknowledge a very familiar darkness within the Christmas story itself.
To start with, there is the darkness of deferred dreams. We read the glorious Messianic promises of Isaiah and Micah -- “For unto us, a child is born” -- and blithely skip ahead a few pages in our Bibles to the gospels to see them fulfilled. In reality, centuries of deafening silence filled that gap.
Then Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus, usually the recitation of a proud heritage for any good Jew. Yet the gospel writer includes prostitutes and adulterers, pulling skeletons out of the closet, bringing Jesus within the realm of our own dysfunctional families.
In public and private, there is a stained backdrop to the Christmas saga. Elizabeth and Mary must have struggled with their own personal tragedies of infertility and unwed motherhood.
Luke spends more time telling us of the oppressive political conditions that led Joseph to Bethlehem than describing a cute little baby. First century Palestine was an occupied land, struggling under the yoke of imperial Rome, and the census that forced Joseph to drag his pregnant wife across the country would have hit the poor the hardest. I imagine the resentful conversations in the lines at the Judean census office must have echoed those I overhear in the demonetisation-driven queues at the bank this month.
I see migrants shivering on donated blankets on Delhi’s intersections; I see Chennai’s homeless struggling in makeshift shelters in the devastating wake of Cyclone Vardah; and my kitschy vision of a romantically thatched stable and manger with tastefully arranged straw dissolves into what must have been the sodden reality of a poverty so extreme it resulted in a young mother forced to give birth in a cowshed.
In your typical nativity play, the innkeeper with his “no room, no room” is often played for comic relief. I doubt today’s Syrian refugees would see the humour any more than Joseph.
And have you ever seen a Christmas pageant that takes the timeline of the story beyond the wise men with their bright star and shiny gifts? Have you seen a cast that includes those mourning mothers, “weeping for [their] children, and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more”? How about the rank-and-file soldier killing babies on a tyrant’s orders? For Jesus’ contemporaries, Bethlehem was their Auschwitz, synonymous not with a Saviour’s birth, but with the genocide of a generation’s babies. And as 21st century genocide victims know only too well, mass murder is inevitably followed by flight. Joseph and Mary were only part of a long tradition of fugitives seeking asylum in a far-off land.
Matthew and Luke paint a dark picture of the circumstances of Christ’s birth. It is left to John, the last gospel writer, to put it into eternal perspective.
John starts with a darkness of cosmic proportions, as with the words “In the beginning”, he hearkens back to Genesis, to a time when “the earth was formless and empty, [and] darkness was over the surface of the deep”. And in that beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And the world was forever changed.
But John tells a parallel story, of the true light, the light of all mankind, which would give light to everyone, a light coming into a dark, dark world.
And then he makes my favourite Christmas statement:
“The light shines in the darkness…
...and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Clearly, this is no romantic candlelight that shines cosily for a few hours and then flickers out. Instead, this is the eternal “Sun of Righteousness, [who will] arise with healing in his wings.”
There is no denying the depth of darkness that surrounds the world, or that infects my soul. And I am encouraged by the acknowledgement of that darkness even at that first Christmas. And yet this is the foundation of my celebration this year: that the birth of Christ is God's assurance that in the long battle with the dark, Light will always win.
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