Posted December 24, 2020
I read recently of a priest who outraged parents by telling a class of infants: ‘Father Christmas isn’t real.’ ‘How could he do such a mean thing?’, asked one parent. I can only surmise that the priest’s intention was first to tell the children that Father Christmas isn’t real and then to go on to tell them that Jesus is real.
I’m sure the priest meant well, but I don’t think he was very fair on Father Christmas; or very fair on Jesus either. Not very fair on Father Christmas, for Father Christmas is real, surely? He’s real to me, anyway. He forms part of my childhood; part of those primordial memories that lie deep in my soul. I don’t mean the grossly commercialized Father Christmas whose sole purpose is to boost high street profits. That Father Christmas is indeed unreal – part of the nightmare unreality of the modern world. I mean the real Father Christmas: the one who brought me that five-shillings Dinky racing car that became the catalyst of all my childhood fantasies. That Father Christmas is still real to me, for he evokes lovely things: the innocence of childhood, the joy and security of family life, the affection of parents and siblings, joyful giving and receiving, in short, the delight of being human. Everything that is genuinely human, unspoilt by evil and unsullied by greed, is real. There is so much that is lovely in this humanity of ours created by God: memories and dreams and noble emotions, wonderful thoughts and aspirations; companionship, intimacy; not to speak of sublime creativity: music, art, philosophy, science. All those things are as real as you can get.
Then perhaps the priest was not fair on Jesus. For if we play off Jesus against what makes us human, we get the reality of Jesus wrong. For Jesus did not come to replace or to detract from human reality: he came to affirm, redeem and enhance it, for he delights in this humanity of ours, created by God. St Paul’s Letter to Titus speaks of Jesus’ coming as the manifestation of God’s philanthrōpia: God’s love for humanity. Similarly, St John says that ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son’. And when St Paul speaks of Christ as ‘the last Adam’, that is, the new humanity, he means not that Christ replaced our humanity but that he purified it, recreated it, and made all that was lovely in it infinitely more lovely.
And as for that majestic proclamation of St John in the Prologue to his Gospel – ‘The Word was made flesh’ – how are we to interpret it if not in the light of the chapters that follow it in his Gospel? Jesus begins his ministry by attending a wedding reception. (He must surely have joined in the dancing, don’t you think?) Soon after, we find him at Jacob’s Well at Sychar in Samaria, tired after his journeying, and asking the woman to give him a drink of water. Later he weeps over Lazarus, whom he loved; then there he is at supper with the beloved disciple snuggled up to him. Then we find him complaining pathetically when the soldier slaps him in the face. On the cross he gives to his beloved disciple a mother, and to her a son. Then in that bright Easter morning, when pain and sorrow are no more, he goes to meet Mary of Magdala in the garden. Later he teases Peter with the charcoal fire on the shores of the lake, because Peter had disowned him over a charcoal fire; and then he wants to be assured by Peter that Peter loves him. (Three times he wants to be assured, perhaps wanting to remind Peter that three times he had denied him.) That is what it means for the Word to have become incarnate. It means that the Word absorbed our humanity into his person. What makes us human made him human too. The Word became flesh.
Let us embrace the baby Jesus this Christmas Day as the one in whom God gives us joy and shares our joy. Let us thank God for the beautiful things that there are in life and in the world. True, this year we are surrounded by darkness and fear. There is suffering and death in many parts of the world, and on our doorsteps. There may be sadness and grief in our personal lives. The Son of God absorbed all that as well into the reality of his being human. While we pray in the darkness for the triumph of what is beautiful, let us also resolve to remove from our hearts everything that is spoilt by evil and sullied by greed, so that God can make us real, and delight in us.
Fr Tom Deidun