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.
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?