December is my birthday month. It was a long time ago and I don’t recall my parents telling me any of the details that marked the day. After all, I was their first child! All I have is the hospital menu for Christmas Day and a couple of baby photos. My youngest brother thinks I’m lucky because he doesn’t even have that. Birth–day stories didn’t make it into our family stories.
Christmas is a birth-day story. The gospels of Luke and Matthew both tell the story of Jesus’ birth, each a little differently. Matthew leant heavily on the hand-me-down Old Testament stories familiar to his Jewish readers, so he didn’t have to explain how they fitted into his Jesus birth story. On the other hand, Luke picks up the human side of birth and links them with Jesus’ divine origins, a focus that his mainly Greek readers were comfortable with.
Down through the centuries ordinary people took the two stories and made them into one, embellishing them with traditions that fitted their culture. So we have carols and Christmas lights, gifts and re-enactments of this birth-day story. This has never quite satisfied religious theologians who focus on the how and why, the ins and outs of Jesus’ divinity. In have always got pretty fussed about the way the rest of us choose to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
When I read their serious words or hear them repeated in a homily, I am left feeling that the joy of gift-giving, decorations, food and family are somehow irrelevant to real religion. Mary Oliver, a poet, said that her job was to unpeel the mundane to reveal the momentous. From where I sit on the edge it looks as though a whole lot of what is momentous can get lost in the mundane of Christmas or even in the wordiness of theologians.
Families sort out the who’s-doing–Christmas-this-year and who-brings-what. Suburban houses twinkle with flashing lights, inside and out, shopping centres bustle with people thinking about what someone else might want, need, look good in or be amused by. Groups gather in municipal parks to sing Christmas carols, Netflix dusts off a whole range of feel-good movies and work mates turn into secret Santas.
I need Christmas. I need an excuse to recapture the kind of excitement that has children counting down the days. It stirs something inside me that adulthood has tried hard to override. I might bemoan the materialism that surrounds Christmas but there’s always something about it that touches my soul in ways that big business, and sometimes myself doesn’t understand.
Jesus’ birth-day wasn’t wrapped in security and plenty, but there was joy and peace and love, something the world needs, families need. Christmas reminds us to keep alive the story of that first Christmas day, to hear the story beneath the tinsel and Christmas trees.
It’s a time to tell children their own birth-day story, to remember that every birth holds within it all the promise and hope that attended Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago when God came to live among us and angels sang, shepherds wondered and men from the East brought gifts.