- Revd Dr Ben Sargent
Why you shouldn’t be grumpy about Christmas
There are lots of things I hate about Christmas. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying that as a vicar, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, I love the message of Christmas: that God came into the world to save fallen humanity. I can see the usefulness of Christmas as a chance to tell more and more people this amazing news. It’s the cheerfulness I find hard. Perhaps like many Brits, I can’t sustain cheerfulness for very long and I have a nasty reaction when cheerfulness seems contrived – such as when assailed by smiling staff at a restaurant. The worst part of all of this is that Christmas has its own way of defending itself: its own way of shaming you if you don’t get on board with the cheer. Like a totalitarian state, if you don’t conform to Christmas jollity, you’re an enemy of the state: a scrooge or a grinch. I can certainly sympathise with the government of Oliver Cromwell at the end of the English Civil Wars which notoriously banned the celebration of Christmas. When I told my wife that I was writing about this, she laughed out loud!
So why shouldn’t one be grumpy about Christmas? Perhaps we might also want to ask whether there’s any reason to want to sustain Christmas cheer when it is so bound up in commercialism, greed and waste. Why should be celebrate?
As the great prophets of Israel’s past looked forward to the day when God would redeem his people, they beheld something which would provoke unparalleled rejoicing. Consider these words from Isaiah 35.1-2:
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.
Isaiah could see that when God acts to save, the joy felt by the whole earth will not be adequately expressed with the breaking of a Christmas cracker. The rejoicing at what God is about to do is uncontainable: it is life where the was once death, water where there was once drought, glory where there was once shame. When God acts to save humanity, the crowning glory of his creation, the whole earth has reason to rejoice.
But the Bible has so much more to say on the magnitude of the great day Isaiah saw from afar. When John writes about the Word coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1.1-18), the claim he makes is enormous. The Word, the logos, John describes would have resonated deeply with his first readers, whether Jews or Greeks. The Word is the power of creation in the life-giving speech of God that, when it is uttered, makes light out of darkness, order out of chaos, life out of dust. The Word is the wisdom, the plan, the reason, that for the Greek philosophers, from Heraclitus to the Stoics, binds the universe together.
Nothing could be bigger news for the whole world than that the very means by and for which the whole world exists is coming. If we can’t see a reason to rejoice, then we’ve really not understood the message of Christmas at all. Knowing all the uncertainty and shame that she might face, Mary responded to the message of Christmas with joyful song because she could see the big picture: the God who fills the hungry, casts down the mighty and raises the lowly had remembered his promise to Abraham and his children forever (Luke 1.54-55).
Just as God instituted the celebration of Passover and the Lord’s Supper as a means of remembering his salvation in human history, so it is not unhelpful to set aside certain times to remember and rejoice at what God has done. I wish it could be Christmas every day, but the 25th of December is a great place to start. Let’s be joyful and celebrate this Christmas. Whatever else is going badly in the world today, we have the same reason as ever to celebrate and it is better than all other reasons! Unlike others, we have no reason to resort to superficiality, commercialism and waste to be cheerful.