Thought for the Day - 23/12/2013 - John Bell
You might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was born in a kindergarten surrounded by children each wearing their father’s dressing gown or their mother’s nightie and singing ‘Away in a Manager’. That presumption is undergirded by the seasonal mantra that ‘Christmas is a time for kids’ - a supposition on which depends the success of a thousand toy shops and electronic games manufacturers who claim that they know exactly what children want (even if it costs more than many parents can afford).
Of course we want children to enjoy Christmas, but I’m keen to prevent the season and particularly the Christmas story from being both infantilised and sentimentalised. I say ‘infantilised’ because, apart from the baby Jesus, there is no one in the story who is a minor. Indeed most of the main characters - the shepherds, the wise men, and Joseph himself - by the standards of their day, would have been considered old. The nativity took place in a cow-shed, not a crèche.
However, I’m more concerned with the story being sentimentalised into a cameo of cosiness and candlelight, when Christmas primarily has to do not with security but with risk.
People in Paraguay understand this. When I was there last year, I was taken to a cemetery where there were as many graves of children as of adults. In indigenous societies, infant mortality rates are high; and archaeologists reckon that in 1st century Palestine, one in four women died giving birth to children and one in three children died at birth. Being born was risky.
It would also be risky - much more then than now - for a pregnant girl to become engaged to a man who was not her child’s father, and who might end up resenting the child.
And the risk is compounded when a local potentate becomes convinced that this child born in peculiar circumstances might become a rival king, and therefore embarks on a campaign of infanticide to eradicate potential competition.
When people sing about how Christmas is all about love, we should remember that the love represented in this story is not sentimental fondness, or romantic escapism. The love that Christmas represents is a love which is proven in the extravagance of the risks taken for the beloved. God gives the fragile Christ child to earth where there are no guarantees of safety and a high probability of danger…and does this out of love for the world.
And that kind of love which risks all can be, for believers and unbelievers alike, the yardstick against which all our fond notions of love can be measured.