So it is Christmas …

 

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As a child, I loved Christmas. I loved the snow, ice skating on the frozen lake near our home, and the sled rides with my patient grandmother pulling me around our tiny North German village. I loved the smell of roasting almonds, of Stollen baking in the oven, and of spicy mulled wine. I loved the secrecy and whispers between my mum and dad, who would then glance at me and smile. I loved the wild and woolly German fairy tales, from Brothers Grimm to the stories my grandparents told of Christmas elves and monsters.

It would be many years later, as a teenager and now living in the Republic of South Africa, that I would first encounter the idea behind Christmas. The ridiculous and wild notion of a child being born in an oppressed Middle Eastern country. A child sent by God to bring hope and peace to this world. This child was born in poverty. His origin was frowned upon. His parents became refugees, as a king, mad with envy, sought his life.

Perhaps most stunning were the claims of his identity: the Son of God. Really? The Author of life would send his Son into poverty, cloaked in humility and utter frailty? This Son of God, who the Prophet called Immanuel … “With Us is God”… would bring peace?

Today, I peruse the news headlines of destitute people seeking refuge, of violent people from all parts of the world killing and maiming, of our wondrous planet being tortured by greed, with animals driven to extinction in record numbers. If this newborn was to bring peace, it doesn’t seem that evident. Am I meant to find comfort in the assumption that it is an ‘inner’ peace that this Christ child has brought? Should I not care about what feels awfully like a world spiralling out of control? As a youngster I loved Christmas, but as an adult it has lost some of its sparkle amidst existential despair. Sometimes I am simply riddled with doubt.

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I wonder about Christmas. A sleeping baby in a manger – not a celebrated General who can wage a ‘just’ war against our ‘enemies’. This humble figure who spoke of those on the margins being honoured – not a glorious genie-in-a-bottle, ready to bestow on us our best life now. This travelling rabbi, sharing some astonishing beliefs of a different kingdom – not some first-class politician able to promise all sorts of benefits to a gullible constituency. This child who became a man that exposed the fraudulent religious elite – not some superhero figure who used supernatural powers to create a happy society. Someone who did not hold on to power, even in the most difficult circumstances – not a power-hungry, border-secure, patriotic theocrat. Christmas is all about a defenceless baby. Can this child really inspire peace?

The peace that is ushered in with this tiny infant is not something that is laid upon us by a passive-aggressive deity. It is not the peace of an empire, forcefully imposed like Pax Romana. It seems like the path of peace has been shown to us in a manner that is so very foreign to an impatient and intolerant humanity. It is a peace that is forged with kindness, with humility, with compassion, with justice, with understanding. Most of all, it is a peace that is realised when we begin to recognise ourselves in the ‘other’, and that they, just like us, are made in the image of the Divine. It is a peace that comes to us through letting go, through sacrifice.

I no longer hold to my childhood Christmas fables, but I still smile at them. I have also discarded many of the uncritiqued ideas that I readily absorbed in my first-half-of-life, religious-zealot era. I still believe in Christmas with a happy-sad feeling. I believe that the little child in the manger is who He claimed to be. I believe that He is the path to peace, and every day we make decisions – individually, in a tribal sense, and in our collective global humanity, whether to follow the outrageous, counter-cultural claims of Christ. The path of peace has to be chosen every day.

So it is Christmas. I look around at the many photos friends are posting of their beautiful babies, and I recall this sleeping baby, carefully placed in a dirty feeding trough, many years ago. A baby who allows us to celebrate Advent, not just at Christmas, but every day. This Christmas child did bring hope to the world – the hope of a different tomorrow. I see it in certain moments: When courage overcomes fear, when kindness overcomes indifference, when joy overcomes despair, when love overcomes hate. When humanity rises beyond a survival mentality to truly love our ’neighbour’. In moments like this, I remember the promise of a child in a manger and I find peace.

Christmas can be a difficult time for many. Whatever your life and circumstances are right now, I trust you can take some time to reflect on this astounding event that unfolded in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. May you find hope as you do. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given … and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Shalom.
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