Christmas Is Absurd: Christmas Sermon 2014

I don’t know if any of you saw it or not, but a couple of weeks ago, the Australian comedian Kitty Flanagan got into hot water by declaring on prime time television that Santa doesn’t exist. Indeed, such was the outrage generated by this remark that the following day, the program on which Flanagan had appeared was forced to air an interview with “Santa”, in which the Man in Red explained that Ms Flanagan had been “fibbing” and that she was a “naughty girl”.[1]

Incidents like this are typically grist to the mill for ministers and others whose responsibility it is to preach at Christmas. It provides a rolled-gold opportunity to bemoan the trivialization of Christmas, the spiritual and intellectual poverty of popular culture, and the general disrespect which secular society has for the Christian story of the Nativity. Indeed, the fact that pop culture so often so blithely accepts the alleged non-existence of Jesus, despite the scholarly consensus to the contrary, (a canard which Ms Flanagan also asserted, but which apparently no-one either noticed or cared much about) also usually provides a bone of contention for preachers at Christmas.

For myself, however, I’m not going to bite. Rather, I want to explore with you the issue of absurdity, because Christmas is packed with absurdity – and it’s in this absurdity that the real joy of Christmas resides.

Much of the absurdity of Christmas arises from all of the nonsense we put ourselves through just to get there. For many people, there’s real hardship at Christmas; everything ranging from the stress of meeting children’s expectations and the associated financial cost of doing so, to the tension of family gatherings and the worry about whether old wounds will be re-opened yet again. For others, it’s the isolation and loneliness amid what is supposed to be a season of mindless hedonism and jolliness. For still others, it’s simply the fact of those who are no longer among us, with whom we can no longer share the time and the season.

So there’s real human misery involved with this time of year. And what we often forget is that there’s real human misery lurking in the background of the Christmas story itself. The Romans who ruled Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth were nothing if not efficient administrators; and from the earliest days of their civilization, they used the census to keep track on their subject populations: where they were located, how much they owned, to whom they were related. All this data made the business of running the Empire more efficient, from keeping the peace to imposing taxation. Hang the cost and inconvenience to others; when the powers that be ordered a census, you went and registered.

Which, in the case of Mary and Joseph, involved a long journey, over roads packed with people who were likewise going to their home towns for the census, fighting for places to stay overnight, all the while mindful of the fact that Mary was on the point of giving birth. Then they finally get to Bethlehem, to discover the place full to bursting – and that’s when Mary starts going into labour.

Our Christmas carols tell us that Jesus was born in a stable, but this is quite possibly a misreading of both the Greek in which the New Testament was written, as well as of its social and historical context. Given the cultural imperatives of the time, with their strict laws of hospitality and kinship, it is highly improbable that Joseph, with his family connections to Bethlehem, would not have been able to find a place to stay. All he would have needed to do was knock on some relative’s door, recite his lineage, and before you could say “Welcome, cousin!”, Joseph and Mary would have been provided room1hospitality, usually in the form of a separate “guest-room” attached to one of their relatives’ homes. The problem was, with so many family members in town at the one time, it is likely that all the available guest spaces were occupied by relatives who had arrived earlier. So what more than likely happened is that Joseph and Mary were forced to share the same living space occupied by one of their relative’s families; and that when Jesus was born, he was placed in the straw-filled depression – or “manger” – at the lower end of this living space, where the feed for the family’s domestic animals was kept. This “manger” would have been adjacent to the covered loft, or stable, where the family animals were housed at night.[2]

So not quite the desperate remedy of a stable, but a pretty grim situation, nonetheless. Mary and Joseph, exhausted after their journey, are forced to share space with a family with whom they are at best only distantly acquainted, without privacy of any sort. In this situation, Mary gives birth; and for want of anywhere else to put him, Jesus is placed in the food trough for the family’s animals. Maybe Mary had some help from the other women of the household with the birth; but it’s still hardly what you call the most ideal of circumstances under which a child might come into the world.

So, yes, an absurd level of human hardship is attached to a story which we unreflectively celebrate as joyous and happy. But within this absurdity is another absurdity; one that is indeed worth celebrating.

And that absurdity is this: that this child, born in such unprepossessing circumstances, is the Son of God; Emmanuel, God-among-us; God who has entered into human life, and who, by doing so, has drawn humanity into the life of God. Of course it’s ridiculous. It’s hard enough getting your head around the notion of God, never mind God-as-one-of-us; afterall, that’s one of the reasons the Romans persecuted the early Christians, because the Christian concept of God was so absurd and offensive. According to the Romans, God was remote, perfect, all-powerful, so far above ordinary mortals that the notion God might become human was simply too ridiculous to entertain. Indeed, so far as the Romans were concerned, it was a form of atheism, a denial of God’s true nature.

To the Romans, God was more like the Emperor, separated from the rest of the world by the splendour of imperial majesty. God wasn’t some mewling baby born to a backwoods couple from a frontier province in a remote outpost of empire. And the Romans weren’t the only people who had difficulty with this concept. Many Jews were at this time longing for and expecting the Messiah, the Chosen One of God who would restore the Kingdom of David, kick out the occupying foreign powers, and return Israel to a position of glory in the world. So naturally they looked to one of the princes of their own royal family, or one of the august personages from among the Temple leadership to supply the Messiah – someone who would, as it were, have all the right “credentials”. The notion that such a person would come from a humble branch of the Davidic line, without either princely or priestly connection, was not only absurd – it was almost sacrilegious.

But have you noticed yet the implications of the earlier discussion about where Jesus was born? If Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, separated from others; if Jesus was born in the middle of a family home, surrounded by people, it means that God-among-us, Emmanuel, stands in our very midst, demanding our attention[3]. The Jesus child is not some frightened, isolated infant requiring our sympathy[4]; rather, Christ came into the world as part of the world, to live our life. In short, nothing less than to be one of us. The “traditional” Christmas story, which is strung together from different bits and pieces of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke; the Christmas carols with their depiction of the isolated stable and the serene baby Jesus sans the visceral messiness of birth and farm animals; all these sanitise and isolate us from the human hardship of the story, from the hardship into which God entered and, through Jesus, redeemed. It also isolates us from God, makes God in Jesus an imperial figure, remote and incomprehensible, like the Emperor in Rome.[5] But if we understand that Jesus was born in a room crowded with human life, if we understand that Jesus was born into a context loaded with difficulty and hardship, we are able to understand exactly why the Messiah was born to this ordinary, unexceptional, utterly normal family: because it is the everyday totality of human life that is embraced by God in the Christmas event, it is in the hum-drum and hardship of the daily grind that God is most actively present. Christmas is not a special, one-off event to be celebrated and then forgotten about until it comes round again; it is that which we carry with us through the day-to-day.

And it is the utter absurdity of God present in the banal normality of human life that we celebrate today, and which makes Christmas truly joyous; and which, I think, gives new meaning to all the hard work, hassles, and general human heartache which our cultural experience of Christmas imposes upon so many of us.           So – am I advocating a ban on Christmas carols, or a campaign to obliterate the idea of Santa Claus? Of course I’m not. What I’m directing your attention to is the hidden depths of the Christmas story, whether recited or sung – even the sanitised, cobbled together Christmas story that pays no attention to the Gospels or their social-historical context. Because within these depths is an absurdity that delights in its capacity to liberate and release; an absurdity that is founded in the very experience of our humanity, in the idea that God might have become “one of us”. And that idea is that if God is not isolated or remote, then neither are we; if God has entered into our human life, so also our human lives partake of the life of God. And it is this coming together, this mutuality that says We are not alone! that we celebrate today.

Let us therefore embrace the absurdity of Christmas. When all the guests are gone, when all the sales are over, when the last repeat of Miracle on 34th Street has been played and the last carol banished from the airwaves, let us remember that child born in ridiculously humble circumstances whom Christians declare was the Son of God. And let us remember, too, that this child was not born in serene and quiet, but amid the hustle and bustle of a tumultuous event, one as every bit as taxing as our own experience of the Christmas season. And let us give thanks that God comes to us, not as a conquering general or priestly sage, but as a child born into a very human reality, God-among-us, God-one-of-us.

[1] “The Project forced to apologise over Kitty Flanagan’s Santa comments”, news.com.au, located at http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/the-project-forced-to-apologise-over-santa-claus-comments-by-kitty-flanagan/story-e6frfmyi-1227151155801, accessed 23.12.14

[2] For an excellent discussion of the issue of Joseph and Mary having “nowhere to stay”, see Ian Paul “Jesus Wasn’t Really Born In A Stable”, Psephizo, located at http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-really-wasnt-born-in-a-stable/, accessed 24.12.14

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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