Our society becomes increasingly cynical and bored, to the point where it risks losing customs and concepts that are crucial to its survival. Christmas matters, not as some arcane concept of a religious belief system but as a way of expressing in Australia what it means to be human, and why it matters.
As a recent newspaper article pointed out, for most Australians, whether or not they have any Christian belief, Christmas is about family. A few years ago the daughter of a friend of mine organized Christmas lunch for the “ferals” – her young adult friends and acquaintances who had no parents or family to go to, lived in rented accommodation (as she did) and had little money to live on. Her mother cooked the turkey and vegetables. I provided a case of beer. She provided salads and the venue. Someone provided dessert. Someone decorated the backyard where they would eat. Some people simply turned up, needing company and good food. I’m told they had a great time. For a few years it became a regular event with different people taking responsibility, until life moved on and people had other ways of being family on Christmas Day.
In the same spirit, Christmas Day in Sydney sees some major events to which anyone is welcome – Christmas lunch at Kings Cross, for example. People eating together, creating space for one another.
That epitomises what Christmas is about. It is not about nuclear families putting demands on people and reinforcing conservative values. It is about humankind as family and people reaching out to one another, celebrating life together. It is about recognising that all people are valuable – whether or not they are employed, or have any money. We can be family to one another, and we can rise above the humdrum of daily life.
For those of us who have partners, children, parents and/or other assorted relatives, Christmas is an opportunity to make space in schedules that the rest of the year are often far too crammed with events. If Christmas has become too much trouble then we ought to question what we are doing with it, but not the festival itself. I am constantly amazed by stories of families where particular people insist on being the centre of attention, imposing unrealistic burdens on other family members, telling them what to buy, what to cook, when the meal will be held, without regard to anyone else’s wishes. Christmas is of no use to anyone if it is an excuse for people to play at being petty tyrants, a danger especially in blended families where expectations differ.
So if Christmas is to work as a family festival, then some Australians need to learn some new skills and attitudes. Skills like listening, negotiating and caring. Attitudes of respect. Learning to make family work not because of blood ties and traditional status and control, but because everyone needs to belong somewhere, to have some sort of human group to turn to, where they find hospitality in the form of a shared meal and the space to be human. We can prepare for Christmas not by buying food and presents but by developing the skills that we need to live respectfully with one another.
And yes, that is worth the effort. The alternative is to retreat into individualism and a totally fragmented life.
What has any of this to do with the religious concept of Christmas? Lots. Christians celebrate Christmas as the time when the idea of God was transformed. God was no longer understood as some immensely powerful being sitting in judgment on human life but as spiritual presence within human life. Christmas recognises that humankind is valuable, and loved, and that all the forces for good within the universe and beyond it care about human beings and the world in which we live. It is an affirmation of human dignity.
Thus Christmas and the four weeks of “Advent” that lead up to it are not merely about esoteric religious beliefs but have political significance. The members of the National Council of Churches in Australia each year promote the Christmas Bowl appeal which raises funds for community development programs in less developed nations. It is a time to hear the voice of those nations. It is a time to reconsider our level of affluence and what we do with our money. It is a time to reach out in community and take action that goes beyond what governments can organize and do. In that sense, Christmas not only calls in to question purely economic concepts of development but also the materialistic values and priorities of our culture.
Last year, I gave my Christmas sermon in Pitt St mall, a couple of weeks before Christmas. It was highly political, because it was part of the Fairwear Campaign’s day of “naming and shaming”. Churches have been major supporters of the Fairwear consumer campaign to ensure that the outworkers who make clothing are paid the full award rates and have adequate occupational health and safety standards. It was the time to name those retailers and manufacturers who had signed up to a Code of Conduct that would allow the union to track what outworkers were really being paid. It was a time to remember that all human beings and all businesses should live with a sense of accountability for how our actions affect other human beings. It was an opportunity to affirm human rights, especially those that talk about the right to work with fair wages and conditions, and the right to belong to unions. It was a time to say: the God in whom we believe is a God who cares for the worst paid workers in this country and calls us to demand justice for them. That is the significance of this strange Christian story of God taking human form and being born in a stable, in an occupied nation.
Indeed, it is that image that has also led some churches and many individual Christians to be active in the anti-war movement. The God we worship at Christmas identifies with all those people who live under military occupation, and all those people who flee as asylum seekers to another nation. The story of Jesus as an infant includes the story of his parents fleeing to Egypt to escape persecution.
We live in an affluent nation where we are increasingly encouraged to think only of ourselves, in our time and place, and not of anyone else. If we follow that temptation, we will lose our humanity and have a society that lives by violence. Christmas is a time to remember some of the stories and images that have helped people reach out in love, not violence to one another, and to challenge or subvert violent empires who want to control everything and define peace in ways that ensure their own power. For that reason alone, Christmas is worth the trouble.