Christmas is marketed in fluffy and tinselling ways – in pastel colours, lots of emphasis on here today and gone tomorrow presents, chocolate and bubbly, friendly faces and cute children. The domestic reality, of course, is more mixed than that. It is certainly about showing children love, celebrations, and families coming together. But it is about real families and relationships. Christmas has its fair share of tensions, tantrums, jealousies and unspoken harsh words, as well as of love, generosity and affection. It needs rich and deep colours to describe it, not just soft blues, yellows and pinks.
It is not surprising that each year Christmas is so celebrated in the midst of deep anxiety. Last year was Bushfire Christmas, with fires tearing through Australia in November and peaking in January. This year is a COVID-Christmas, celebrated at a time when the virus is largely controlled in Australia but ravaging many other parts of the world. It is a time for family Christmas, but also one of anxiety for the future as we face economic pressures in addition to the threat to our health.
This is serious, not fluffy, stuff. It poses serious questions to us about what matters to us in our lives. When we think of the story of the first Christmas, that element of seriousness is appropriate. The question underlying the Gospel stories of Christ’s birth asks where we might look to find God in our world. The answer given in the stories is that we might expect to find God in unnoticed people, in marginal and poor places, in simple human realities like giving human birth, in danger from paranoid rulers, in flight from home, in intimations of a troubled future. The stories address the deep realities of human life and not just the surface. That is where we find life in our work at Jesuit Social Services: in the reality of young people’s lives, in their failures as well as their successes, in their resilience as well as their fragility.
The Christmas stories also say that where God is found, joy can also be found. Like fire it spreads first unnoticed through the social undergrowth. It does not break out in the cities nor even the villages, but outside them in grotty fields, and from them to shepherds on the hills grazing their sheep, to old women and men who spend their declining days in the temple, away from public life. And of course, as this theme was picked up in the later legends, the joy was shared by animals in the stable and servant boys tending to Mary in flight to Egypt.
The direction of the stories also illuminates where God and life might be found in the experience of the coronavirus. Here, too, we might look outside the decision makers to simple places and human actions. The joy associated with freedom from restriction grows out of the grind of wearing a mask, of staying at home, and of sacrificing our own freedom and interests for the good of the larger community. The restrictions of a CV Christmas, cheerfully borne, are the seedbed of joy.
As at the first Christmas joy is built with the bricks of unselfish love, the straw of unexpected growth in times of solitude, the mortar of conversations that happened because there was nothing more interesting to do, and the sharp eye that notices and responds to the joys and sorrows of others.