“And they were sore afraid”…
If you recognize those words, chances are you grew up in the Protestant Christian tradition, and you heard that phrase every Christmas when the story of Jesus’ birth was proclaimed from the gospel of Luke chapter two. Such things were read out unapologetically in public spaces like schools and municipal events. People would nod and smile.
Much has changed in the course of a generation to make this message less welcome. You can dispense with the Christian assumptions of the holiday, now buried in the sentimental blandishments which are happily served up by marketers everywhere. A Christmas for everyone and for no one in particular, where you get to choose your own meaning.
What makes it Christmas? It’s a good question. I didn’t think about it much when I was a kid, with only a few Christmases to reference in my own memory. Christmas seemed to be about the same for everybody, based on longstanding traditions. It did not seem there was much to consider.
One of my best Christmas recollections was the delicious whimsy of sitting with a blanket on the hot air register in the early morning darkness equipped with a flashlight, checking out the new toy offerings in the yearly Eaton’s Christmas catalogue and earmarking the pages that interested me. That was a standard. It seemed Eaton’s would be around forever, supplying you with everything from soup to nuts. But things change. Eaton’s came and went, and I barely noted it’s passing. There were too many other things going on, I was busy, and the world was changing. I was changing. Going through many different experiences to add nuance to meaning. Starting to have Christmases on my own and wondering what traditions to gather in and what to pass by.
At a certain point I came to understand that people were terrified of Christmas. It is not altogether wrong. The first Christmas, King Herod was also terrified when he heard a strange prophecy that a new king was to be born, as appointed by signs in the heavens. He marked the first Christmas with the slaughter of innocents just to make sure, but he did not stop Christmas. It came just the same.
The world is still quite terrified of Christmas. It wants to hold the line, not wanting to speak the name of the occasion, settling rather for Happy Holidays, as if what is to be celebrated is amorphous and subject to preference. Marketers love it, but only for the sales. Please do not mention religion. We live in a pluralistic society. We must respect that there are other traditions.
When I lived in a downtown Toronto Co-operative, the structure of the unit was progressive, heavily leaning toward marginalized portions of society. Such people cast a long shadow when it came to influencing what went on in the building. There was an annual holiday party. People seemed to dread the Christian roots of Christmas, particularly any mention of Jesus. That would be cultural imposition. Trying to decide best how to celebrate, the social committee came up with observances that were oblique enough to pass the sniff test.
A prominent Aboriginal family within the cooperative set the tone. They told us that Christmas was about the welcoming of the solstice, that period of the year where all is dark and you are looking to celebrate the return of warmth and daylight. We stood in a lineup and carried candles to usher in the solstice. I am not sure that this observance was particularly native Indian, but the party became something out of form. It did not reach any common touchstones of memory. Apparently we were so terrified of real Christmas that we chose to pretend. We marched about like fools in the darkness with our candles, and no one said anything despite that our own traditional Christmas carols were calling out to us in the background.
And so it has become important to me, to understand just what makes it Christmas. I am left to embrace a mystery, that at its heart, Christmas is indeed holy and terrifying. The message of Christmas is most unwelcome. In a world busy and caught up with itself, God suddenly appears in human flesh.
And they were sore afraid. God stepping into our world is confrontational and might require something of us. We want to avoid giving God a face, and a name, it would be far too concrete. There is a particularity and a sureness that comes with framing God in human flesh that makes us very uncomfortable. We prefer arm’s length abstractions that leave us to do as we please.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
We are coming again to the Feast of the Incarnation, the mass of Christ. Divine intervention face to face. Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and most people chose to look away because God close-up can be terrifying. And they were sore afraid.....