Friday, January 01, 2010

A Christmastide Sermon - 2009

The Cost of Christmas

During the last few weeks, I have noticed a distinct trend in the Advertisements that urge us to buy and buy again. Of course, the circumstances of this particular “shopping season”, otherwise known as Advent, create immense difficulties for the advertising industry. Even the most ingenious and bare-faced practitioners of the art of persuading us that what we would like is in fact a need which we fail to meet at our peril, even they have had a hard sell. One Mega store has adopted the slogan “Christmas Costs Less at (let us call it) Xmart”; after muting the rest of the spiel, for the second or third time, and as I sat waiting for the program to resume, I began to muse: “What, in fact, is the cost of Christmas? Is it calculated as, presumably, the GNP is worked out by examining a sheaf of statistics? What statistics? Then I asked myself, “What did the first Christmas cost?”

Costs: Immediate and Hidden

Certainly, the accounts suggest crowds with, one assumes, not a spare seat in any donkey cart, but our records do not say anything about last minute shopping, though there is a note of urgency since “Mary’s time had come” and a place was needed for the birthing. Knowing businessmen everywhere, the shed was probably not gratis, but the cost must have been very small. So, from a purely commercial point of view that first Christmas was even cheaper than shopping at Xmart. “But”, I mused on, “what about the hidden costs, those pages of small print?” Cost cannot be reckoned merely in dollars and cents, though we consistently seem to think so.

As is so often the case, the true cost of something is not always immediately obvious; this is surely true of some of the more stupid things we do, but it is also true of our generous actions. In these cases, we usually know the immediate cost, and if we are realistic, accept the fact that unexpected costs may lie ahead. But we have taken all that into account and will stand by our decision to offer help.

I think that something like this is the true cost of Christmas. Luke records the visit of Mary and Joseph to the Temple for the ritual purification required after childbirth, and adds the prophecy of Simeon. “This child is destined…to be a sign that will be opposed…and a sword will pierce your very being”. (Lk, 2.35): a chilling intimation of costs to come. We know that Jesus was destined not only to be spoken against, but to be viciously attacked.

Jesus the Realist & Human Fantasies

If we are realistic about helping someone, we are prepared for unexpected costs, and there is no doubt that Jesus was totally realistic about the consequences of his mission. Dozens of his recorded sayings show that he knew he was in danger. Some Pharisees, says Luke, came to him and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”, and Jesus replies that he must continue with his mission of proclaiming the Rule of God, because it “is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem”. (Lk. 13.32).

Perhaps the most costly thing of all is to refuse to face reality: to live in a world of fantasy. Of course, when we do that it is often others who have to bear the greater cost. The examples of the human tendency to prefer fantasy to reality are unlimited. To begin with a biblical example, we may note the Genesis story of the building of the tower of Babel. This is the climax of the early Myths recorded in chapters one to eleven in Genesis. They begin with the fantasy that we do not have to follow God’s plan for us because we are so clever, and end with the futile attempt to place ourselves as the divine at the top of a Ziggurat, the dwelling place of the gods.

In our own day it must be obvious to any thinking person that the advertising industry encloses us in a cocoon of fantasy: every family is perfect and each member has gleaming white teeth; diamonds are for ever and will ensure eternal love; a cruise in a totally artificial environment (ski slope; mini tropical forest) will…goodness only knows what it will do. Perhaps one of the potentially most costly (indeed bankrupting) fantasies is that there is no danger from a rapidly melting ice pack. The terrible cost will face our grandchildren as coast line shrinks, unless we can all come to grips with the reality of the situation very quickly.

Transformation of God

In a sermon preached long before he was ArchBp of Canterbury, Rowan Williams says that human love at its best, giving up personal interest and risking safety on various levels to help a fellow human being ‘provides a hint’ of what happened at Bethlehem. “A human being comes into existence who so transforms what we mean by “God” that we can boldly and almost playfully say that God has moved, or changed places”. (A Ray of Darkness (1993) p. 18). Yet, our power to turn the reality of God’s love into fantasy is very clear in so much associated with Christmas. As Rowan Williams says in another Christmas sermon, “The tightly swaddled baby is a gift-wrapped object…a lucky mascot”. (op. cit. p. 27). That human being who was to pay such a cost for us, has been made into a marketing symbol. Could anything be further from reality than the carol verse: “The cattle are lowing…But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. Rowan comments that there can be no parent who is not incredulous at such a report. 'Lowing' is an understatement; the cattle were doubtless creating a racket; angels were shouting a chorus and people were tramping in and out. Any real baby (not the fantasy one of carols and Hallmark) would be giving full voice with a scarlet face and clenched fist.

The Gift & Cost of Christmas

And the whole point is that Jesus was real; a real baby, a real adolescent and a real man, perhaps the most real human being ever. In his humanity he showed us what the love of God means and challenged us to leave our fantasy world behind and live in the reality of the Rule of God. It was this commitment to reality that brought him into conflict with the authorities and led, ultimately, to his execution, the hidden cost of his birth in Bethlehem.

It might seem that this is a far too gloomy reflection for Christmastide, but it need not be. Could anything be a greater gift than to be enabled to receive the outpoured love of God, which Jesus so unstintingly mediates to us? Who would not seize the opportunity to escape from an unreal world into the reality of God’s kingdom? To be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Do you still not see” by a resounding “Yes”.
St. Augustine said that God will ultimately penetrate our deafness. I suggest that it will be by the continual and loud crying of the Baby in the Crib, followed by the resounding Prophetic proclamation of a God who loved so much that Paul could say, “The foolishness of God is greater than human wisdom”. (I Cor. 1.25).

No comments: