Many of us approached the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in different ways. With the school holidays underway and a public holiday not only for Christmas but the English traditional holiday of Boxing Day, even those who are not of the Christian faith find Christmas as a time for families to come together. Among those who consider themselves Christians, yet are not regular Church-goers, Christmas (perhaps along with Good Friday) is one day when an effort is made to attend a church service.
I recently ventured into to town to face the hordes of Christmas shoppers, looking for gifts and bargains. Economic globalisation and capitalism leads to pride, materialism and individualism – an “it’s all about me and what I have” mentality. This results in people being marginalised, oppressed and suffering. Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev. Dr. Justin Welby said that people are making themselves "miserable" at Christmas because of the pressure of buying expensive gifts for loved ones.
I reflected on the reality that away from the specials and the glitz, the material face of Christmas, there is a message of the greatest gift of all, the gift of love. For Christians, we celebrate the gift of God’s love for humankind with the incarnation of the Word of God, Jesus the Christ.
Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth was a under Roman military occupation. The traditional leaders and religious leaders colluded with the Roman governors to ensure their own survival and prosperity. The places like area of Nazareth were populated mostly by Jews, but also with some diversity of Syrians, Greeks, and Romans. The major city of Palestine was Jerusalem, which was more cosmopolitan and contained far greater ethnic diversity. Jewish leaders fought for the purity of their belief in one God in the face of conflicting foreign religions. Yet at the same time, they fragmented into sects divided over variations of the Jewish law.
The Roman government practiced syncretism, accepting that all religious beliefs, philosophical teachings, and government systems are ultimately compatible, or a reflection of, a larger system – the Roman system. They practiced one of the first “one country, two systems” policies – pronouncing that all people had religious freedom, political freedom, and freedom of thought, yet maintaining strict control.
The decree from Caesar, Emperor of Rome, meant that despite all the preparations in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to in order for Joseph to register (Mary, as a 1st century woman did not figure in to the equation). As a result, instead of a well prepared, clean homebirth, Jesus was born in a stable and laid not in a crib but in an animal trough; surrounded not by the midwives and family members but by animals. This is how God chose to incarnate God’s Word in the world: alone and vulnerable - a fragile baby, born into poverty and within days of His birth became a persecuted refugee.
In this stable, with the Messiah, the Christ, the Prince of Peace lying in a manger is the message for this Christmas and the Christmases to come. It is the message of humility – the humility to accept God’s intervention in our lives. Christmas also has a message of hope – that in this little manger is the Messiah / Christ, whose main task is to save us.
At his final general audience of 2013 in St. Peter's Square a week ago, Pope Francis spoke about the birth of Jesus and the importance of humility. "It is an ugly thing," he said, "when you see a Christian who doesn't want to humble himself, who doesn't want to serve, a Christian who struts about everywhere: it's ugly, eh? That is not a Christian: that's a pagan!"
In his Christmas message, the President of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev. Dr. Tuikilakila Waqairatu has called for Christians to remember as that Jesus birth “cannot be separated from the fall of mankind in the garden of Eden, the cross, resurrection, Kingdom building and life eternal. All are in the one same package labelled God’s faithful commitment for the salvation of mankind (John 3: 16).”
“This Christmas of 2013 sets an imperative mission tone to our beloved Fiji, to its vanua, lotu and matanitu; that every individual is called to restore God’s image in his or her life; to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6: 8),” he wrote.
“To restore God’s image in us, is to promote the resurgence of love, holiness, unity, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in our society. These are the cornerstones of strong and healthy nation building Fiji badly needs today in order to experience life in its fullness (John 10: 10b)”
Christians are called to create a world of humility where the poor and oppressed are lifted up. We are called to model society on this understanding not just this Christmas but in 2014 and beyond. Let this Christmas be a time of recommitting to lift up and care for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised and to accept the call restore God’s image in our lives. It is a call that even those not of the Christian faith can appreciate. It is what makes Christmas truly a national holiday.
May you and your loved ones have a happy and holy Christmas filled with love, light and peace.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”.