Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.