Cancel Christmas? Are you out of your mind?
But are we able to think of the ugly and painful world in which we live amid the bonhomie and nostalgia this Christmas, asks Andrew Kleissner?
Many years ago, I nearly suggested to the church I was then serving that we cancel our Christmas celebrations.
That was the year when the Security Wall was going up around the West Bank, and it seemed obscene that we should be singing joyful carols about the 'little town of Bethlehem' and the shepherds who 'watched their flocks by night' which contrasted so strongly with present-day reality.
Well, I never did make that suggestion: I suspect I was frightened of the furore that it would undoubtedly have raised. On the other hand, we might really have managed to make a point in the media by being 'the church that isn’t doing Christmas'! So perhaps, in retrospect, I made the wrong decision. And the thought has never gone away, for that wall is still there and Bethlehem is still a city whose residents lead a very trying life.
In some ways, things haven’t changed much since Jesus’ day. We mustn’t forget that, by the time of his birth, Palestine had been occupied by the Romans for about 60 years; it would be a further 70 years before it again became independent.
It was the Romans, and their desire to tax everyone in the province of Judaea, who made Mary and Joseph journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem: they certainly did not go happily nor of their free will. And, of course, the evil puppet-king Herod was no fictional fairy-tale tyrant: he was as cruel as the Gospel story makes out.
Somehow, though, we tend to push these uncomfortable thoughts to the back of our minds when we think about Christmas, even in church. We decorate the building, we put on special services and parties, we eat mince pies until they come out of our ears, we generally have a jolly time – often making sure that we remember the needy and homeless as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose – but it does seem to downplay the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, the God who came into our real world, who was born at a real time and place.
So, as we worship this Christmas, can we think seriously about what we are hearing and singing rather than let the familiar words roll over us?
Can we cut through the bonhomie, nostalgia and candle-light and think of the ugly and painful world in which we live?
Can we look at the baby in the manger and see not a pretty doll but a child who would grow up and experience his fair share of human pain and misery?
I know that we’d prefer not to do these things because they are unsettling and disturb the 'Christmas spirit'. But, if we don’t, the Jesus of history might as well have never been born.
Andrew Kleissner is the Minister of Christ Church (URC/Baptist), Ipswich