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The tangled strands of Christmas

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Christmas is always a mixture of nostalgia, weariness, connection and hope. This year the strands that compose it are even more tangled. We hope to return to the pre-Covid normal of celebration without anxiety. We look forward to the New Year as a gate to freedom to travel, work and plan our lives without hindrance. At the same time, however, our plans are conditional.  We realise that Covid has not left us, and that its mutations may lead to more interruptions and restrictions.

As we await the New Year, too, we may want to hang on to the things which, during the lockdowns and disruptions of Covid. we have valued for ourselves and society: the reflectiveness encouraged by forced solitude, the recognition that the health and welfare of each person depends on the self-denial of all, and the discovery that the value to society of different occupations are often in inverse proportion to their remuneration.

We may also recognise that any return to the pre-Covid normal leaves untouched deeper long-term challenges to our society. These include the urgent need to mitigate and to reverse the effects of global warming, to address the growing inequality of wealth and security in society, and to reform a political culture focused on the narrow good of political parties to the neglect of the national good.

In such a complex and unpredictable world that evokes both uncertainty and desire for reassurance, Christians may seek in the stories of the first Christmas and its traditional forms of celebration, simplicity and assurance.

Most artistic images of Christmas certainly represent an intimate world that is serene and ordered. From the Angel’s promise to Mary through to the scenes of Jesus’ birth not a hair is out of place. Yet the details of the Gospel stories suggest a much more uncertain and interrupted world. The characters need to deal with large public threats to their personal lives, and all the uncertainty and anxiety that these provoke.  In both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels Jesus’ birth is overshadowed by overbearing and self-centred Government interference. Mary and Joseph have to walk far from their hometowns to register for taxation by the occupying Roman power. Matthew’s Gospel has them flee to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being murdered by an insecure King Herod fearing for his throne.

The principal agent in the stories, too, is a God who intervenes in human life to rescue and bless it. The stories are all epiphanies of God’s power and love, reflected in the serenity and beauty of their artistic representation. For the people to whom God comes, however, the intervention is a source of fear and anxiety. The angels bringing them the good news repeatedly need to say, ‘Do not be afraid’. The experiences that follow this exhortation, moreover, induce anxiety and strip away security and certainty. In late pregnancy Mary is forced to walk the roads for some days, to deliver her child in the fields, and to endure an irruption of shepherds, the most disreputable of people. She later travels with Jesus to Jerusalem, and faces the agony of finding him missing on return. In Matthew’s story, Joseph is told to marry Mary despite her carrying a child that is not his. After the birth he is told to take Mary and Jesus out of town and country immediately because Herod wants to kill the child.

 

'God does not take away the insecurity and unpredictability that breed fear and anxiety, but shares our experience of them. God offers a promise that ultimately all will be well.'

 

The point of these stories is that God does not take away the insecurity and unpredictability that breed fear and anxiety, but shares our experience of them. God offers a promise that ultimately all will be well. The horizon of the Gospel stories is not security but hope. In fact the stories of Jesus’ infancy echo those of his later ministry and path to Jerusalem in taking away the conditions that provide security: home, wealth, protection from enemies and expectation of a settled life. The lives of Mary and Joseph in these stories anticipate the destiny of Jesus and those of the people to whom Jesus later reaches out: the sick, tormented, ostracised and poor. He offers a hope that transcends their predicaments.

In our world, as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, the people whose lives most closely resemble those of the stories of Jesus’ childhood are the refugees who have lost security, homes, wealth, reputation and human standing. They too must build hope out of totally inadequate resources. They are also the people in whom Jesus’ followers, like the shepherds, must find God’s love and presence. Christmas is more than a family event.

The Christmas stories do affirm the value of simple human relationships, the mystery of child bearing, the promise and value of each human being, and the gift of being human. They measure that value, however, against the precariousness and transience of human life, offering a hope against hope.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Illustration of business people exchanging money. (Fanatic Studio / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas, nostalgia, hope

 

 

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“Joseph is told to marry Mary despite her carrying a child that is not his.
I stood amongst the stars, as a child with Guardian of great age
With face like a Buddha or a babe
No hair, eyes gentle shone, two pools of delight tenderness bright
No word was uttered; he stood near, in right hand, test tube with seed
My heart did read, it all started here I did perceive
Then in garden of delight, tap of eternity running crystal clear
He took me close and I did fear
I was in ancient land amongst clamor, dust, and sand
In spirit approaching from the rear, He turned;
His sight stooped me in my flight
Rabbi! two pools of delight, held me tight
I entered cool room, within maid and future groom
Pitcher pouring water, in hand, her beauty *shone from within*
As if she had never seen sin

“It must have happened when you touched my hand” (The Betrothal?)

I saw the goodness in his manly face, no doubt did take place
He was a true lover, who knew goodness in another
A holy family did take place in trust, love, gentleness, and grace
There was no duty here; this was love in highest sphere
The room grows dark; from two lovers I do depart
Now on gloomy hill, all nature still, approaching the Cross,
Shock! nakedness, such suffering
All nature seemed to groin with pain, I was home again
Numb with shock, such suffering cannot be forgot
This in truth is what I saw, I make no comment I open a door.
*It is fair to say that this same light shone from the Groom also*
kevin your brother
In Christ


Kevin Walters | 16 December 2021  

For refugees, for the impoverished and the traumatised a high level of anxiety is a normal condition. God knows these things and the suffering are given hope in ways mysterious. In Advent and at Christmas the O Antiphons tell of the rising Sun who comes to enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. The best story in town.


Pam | 16 December 2021  
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Amen to that, Pam.


John RD | 18 December 2021  

“The Christmas stories do affirm the value of simple human relationships, the mystery of childbearing, the promise and value of each human being, and the gift of being human”…… While also reflecting family values.
In the early fifties when I was a young child the vast majority of Christmas Cards depicted themes from the nativity, nowadays they are almost non-existent as Santa with his reindeers, etc have transformed the reality of the spiritual Christmas message to mankind into a worldly one and cornered the marketplace so to say (This might not be so in Australia) I wonder why I have never heard within a sermon, encouragement given to use this medium to help keep alive the Christian message please think carefully about and ask yourself why? While understanding the reality of a Church within a Church ..V.. one that colludes with the values of this world.
I usually (almost always) send Christmas cards with a Christian theme, for not to do so, would deny my own Christian witness. My discourse with Timothy on another site in America. ‘Thank you, Timothy, for your comment. It is good to hear that you send authentic Christmas Cards. I am unsure how to respond to “And when we receive “Frosty the Snowman” Christmas cards from some friends or relations, we do not display them. We toss them out”

Hi! Timothy, in my last comment to you I did not fully respond to this part of your post “And when we receive “Frosty the Snowman” Christmas cards from some friends or relations, we do not display them. We toss them out”…. As I needed to reflect upon the full implication of the said statement. I initially asked myself this question, how do we judge the intent of the sender, as most of us receive cards from neighbors and colleagues, to bin them (Toss them out), could be seen as a form of bigotry.

I personally do not bin them rather I give pride of place (Main fireplace mantel) to those with an authentic Christmas theme. But now after reflecting upon your post, I will augment this by placing all the authentic cards around the simplicity of a small crib, that we display over the Christmas period while putting the others close to the Christmas tree, with its baubles and other forms of trinkets. This will ensure that any visitor will understand our values, while not becoming ‘Frosty the Snowman”
kevin your brother
In Christ


Kevin Walters | 17 December 2021  
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Brilliant idea. Have a blessed season, Kevin.


roy chen yee | 24 December 2021  

Thank you, Roy, (I have just seen your comment hence the delay in responding)
May His gift of peace be yours this coming year and always.
kevin your brother
In Christ


Kevin Walters | 22 January 2022  

Lordy, Lord! Another Kevin Walters poetic gem. The man is unstopable. It's incredibly well meant and I believe him, like Marty Rice, John Frawley and John RD to be a genuine Christian and full of the spirit of this time. So it's more than excusable. I was feeling like the Grinch until I received an invite from Carers' Queensland to a superb noshup and a ticket to a presentation of 'A Christmas Carol' starring Eugene Gilfedder as Scrooge. It was for fellow carers. It made my day. Thank you, Carers' Queensland. It was just what the doctor ordered.


Edward Fido | 17 December 2021  

Christmas and Easter, Christianity's greatest commemorative events celebrating humility, human dignity, self sacrifice, unqualified acceptance and forgiveness of others and generosity to the poor and disadvantaged- all ruined in the main by the money lust of the great USA and now nothing more than massive festivals of self-indulgence. Nothing wrong with festivals, mind you, but what a crying pity that Christ plays such a minor, if any, role in either of them these days - understandable I suppose when, as far as we are aware, he and his family weren't into legless drunkenness, self indulgence, illicit sexual pursuits and the need for entertainment, Crikey!! There is no need to remind me that I'm doing better than Ebenezer Scrooge, here.


john frawley | 19 December 2021  
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"Christmas and Easter, Christianity's greatest commemorative events. . ." - and, thank God, they still are, jf, despite the vain and noisy commercialist juggernaut's efforts to drown out the angels' singing and that of those in cultures all round the world who gather to witness to the history-changing Christ-event and the hope it engenders, and to thank and worship God-with-us, Emmanuel - especially those whose lives strive to make his truth and love known in the face of neo-Herodian barbarity and persecution. My thanks to you, john, for your many faithful and enlightening contribution in these pages. A blessed Christmas!


John RD | 20 December 2021  

Nice to see George Pell's gentle words reprised. He'd be beaming about your reference to Herod. Such Yuletide bonhomie!


Michael Furtado | 20 December 2021  

Andy, how dare you insert a reference to refugees, when all the Old Faithful wanted was to promote the Mutual Admiration Society that they desperately want ES to be. You sure can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Keep it up there, lad!


Michael Furtado | 20 December 2021  

So, so 'Dick Emery', Edward. You ARE naughty - damning, as it were, with such faint praise? - but I like you!


Dr Michael FURTADO | 20 December 2021  

Time for a drop of the Old Bushmills, say I. This piety is gettin' me down.


Michael Furtado | 20 December 2021  

America is not that bad, John F. They're millions of decent Americans who really believe in God, give generously to charity and will celebrate Christmas appropriately. Cities aflame and Lifestyles of the Rich and Flatulent are not all it's about. Thank God! We've got our own Rich and Flatulent. Recalling the Parable of Dives and Lazarus could have a salutary effect on them. Or a visit from The Ghost of The Christmas to Come.


Edward Fido | 20 December 2021  

Dear Andy, as usual this is a thoughtful and yet simple piece of reflection bringing to the fore, the purpose of nativity; to bring hope and encouragemnt to the people who are in despearate need and precariously 'managing'- in fact it is our desperate need which opens us to such a birthing.


Marie Bourke | 21 December 2021  
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Well said, Marie. Thinking of all at 'The Bridge' as Christmas approaches, and especially Steve, yourself, Aaron and Archie. May the vulnerability of the infant Jesus increase our appreciation and dependence on God-with-us. (Francis is still my first pick of the best wingmen in the past 50 years, despite the fact I support the Saints!)


John RD | 21 December 2021  

Thank You, Marie Bourke, for your wonderful post. Apart from its spiritual insight it showed me, as unintentional as this might have been on your part, that my erstwhile antagonist on this site, John RD, has for once made a concession to his human and personal side in his published response to you. I thank and warm to both you and him for this.


Michael Furtado | 10 January 2022  

‘I know what you unintentionally meant to say. I warm to you because the both of you unintentionally prove me right. I can, after all, read the tea leaves of your conversations.’

A bit like Jesus reading the tea leaves of other people’s hearts from their demeanour and what they say and do, I suppose.


roy chen yee | 17 January 2022  

'for once made a concession to his human and personal side....'

'Amen to that, Pam' (John RD, 18/...um, XII, above) should pierce the fug of any Bushmill 'veil', one would have thought!


roy chen yee | 17 January 2022  

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