ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects on a Christmas of simplicity and purpose.
This year, many people are approaching Christmas Day both with longing and a little hesitation. For two years, the things that we take for granted at Christmas have been under threat. Family gatherings and reunions have been limited by restrictions. So have the buying of gifts, travel over holiday time, and gatherings at the beach. This year it is easy to feel the pull between going back with greater enthusiasm to what we did before and the desire, fuelled by the discoveries we have made during the lockdowns, to find new and perhaps more simple ways of celebrating Christmas.
We all have our memories of past Christmases – some of joy, of conviviality, of generous excess, and others of sadness, disappointment and rancour. They reflect the joys and sorrows, the generosity and the meanness. The simplicity and the complexity of our lives. The original Christmas stories, too, are marked by human simplicity in the face of imposed complexity. In Luke’s Gospel, the main actors are a young couple walking to a distant town, focused all the while on the coming birth of their child. They are making this uncomfortable journey because the Roman Emperor has demanded that they with all their fellow countrymen register for taxation purposes. The overcrowding of the town caused by the census also means that Jesus’ birth takes place in the simplest of surroundings – in a lean-to for cattle. The celebration of the birth also takes place in the field, with its guests a group of notoriously unsociable shepherds and a choir of angels, the simplest of beings.
Matthew’s stories of Jesus’ birth are also marked by a human simplicity enforced by inhuman complexity. Because King Herod sees the child as a threat to his throne he sends soldiers to kill all children of the baby’s age. Joseph and Mary have to leave their home abruptly and make their way to Egypt as refugees. In this story, too, as in Luke’s Gospel, their lives are stripped to their bare necessities of love, faithfulness, trust that they will find a way, while waiting for the instructions of angels.
The enforced simplicity of the first Christmas mirrors aspects of life under COVID-19 restrictions. Like the journeys of Mary and Joseph, our lives were shaped by the instructions of our lords and masters, by the tightening or loosening of restrictions, and by the effects that these had on travel, on employment, on study and on health. The relative isolation of our lives also offered space to reflect on what matters most to us. At its best it offered the opportunity, as it did to Mary and Joseph, to attend to the detail of their daily lives with all their attendant anxieties and moments of contentment, and to find in the rhythms and texture of life in restriction an invitation to reflect.
Certainly the simplicity which allows us to attend to our world and people is worth building into our celebration of Christmas. Simplicity has less to do with by doing more or eating less than with noticing and appreciating little things more. We attend to the faces of people both when we are speaking and also when they are at rest and their lives are written into their bodies. We listen deeply in conversation. We take time when eating and drinking to appreciate the meal and be grateful for it. We measure the value of the presents we receive by the feeling behind them and not by the price tag.
We also keep in our minds and hearts the faces of the people whom we may not meet this Christmas: people in aged homes, in prisons, homeless on the streets, seeking protection from persecution. These are the people for whom Christ came and whose company he shared as a baby at the first Christmas. They are also the people whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services, whatever may be our beliefs and those of the people whom we serve. The stories of Christmas are central to Christian faith, but they are a gift to everyone to be lived out each in our own way.