25 December – Christmas: Beginning at the end
Something akin to “Bah Humbug” is muttered a fair bit around our house each year as Christmas draws near, and it is not by the person to whom I am married, nor by the little people who live with us and for whom Christmas is the probably most marvellous thing they can think of.
These utterances begin in connection with the complication of normal life which begins to develop from the beginning of December and continues for most of the rest of the month – you know the kind of thing I’m talking about!
But more than such complications, old Scrooge’s avatar is provoked by the developing struggle to say something about Christmas which won’t already have been said every week in the lead up to the day and which moves us past obvious remarks about the reason for the season. This is the struggle to find a way through the great tangle of associations we have with Christmas, in order to make some sense of the stories at the source of the whole Christmas project.
For it is hard to get “inside” Christmas, helpfully. It’s not just that it’s been corrupted into a dozen lesser things. It’s more the strangeness of the whole story, its lack of clear meaning.
To illustrate the point: most of you have probably seen the type of sign some churches set up out the front, which usually proclaim a short message intended to make people think as they drive by. The cringe factor of these things is generally pretty high. One from a few years ago which has stuck in my mind ran something like, “Newsflash: kid born in shed saves world”. What it had going for it is that if you know anything about the Christmas story then you’ll appreciate the humour. Yet, like most public Christian reflection upon Christmas, what it has going against it is that very few are likely to be stirred by it. As a bald statement – as an assertion about who we are and what matters – either you already agree with it or you don’t, and that’s about as far it will move us.
We live in a time when each of us effectively has to make Christmas our own, as best we can. One result of this situation is that, year after year, Christians lament the diminishing foothold Christ seems to have on Christmas. Year after year the church tries to inject some understanding of the “true” meaning of Christmas into the midst of the annual rush. This is perhaps most of all to be expected in the Christmas sermon!
But the problem is that there is really no “true meaning” of Christmas which can be spoken in that way. Perhaps the most difficult thing to hear and to communicate is why the story matters. “Kid born in shed saves world” is clear enough as a sentence, but what it means or the difference it makes is far from clear for most people, and the same must also be said of stories about angels, shepherds, surprised virgins and sceptical fiancés. The stories of Christmas rarely deliver gripping meaning to first-time hearers, and often enough not to 100th-time hearers, either.
If we think about it for a moment, this should not surprise us. For the stories of Christmas, and certainly the opening verses of the Gospel of John (which we have heard this morning) – though they come at the beginning of the stories about Jesus – are in fact the writers’ conclusions about Jesus and not their starting points. This is the strangeness of the Christmas story: it starts somewhere other than its apparent beginning.
In reading something like John’s gospel we naturally begin with the passage we have heard this morning – the first verses of his gospel. Yet those few words are, in a sense, actually the last thing he added to his account of Jesus’ ministry. (This is not an historical observation, but a theological one. Even if, when John first sat down at his desk to write his gospel, the first thing he wrote was the first 18 verses of chapter 1, they would still represent the conclusion to which he had come and which motivated him to write in the first place). The gospel writers do not simply begin their accounts with what has been “revealed” to them as the first thing which happened. Where they begin results from their having thought backwards from their own prior encounter with Jesus-as-the-Christ, and his impact on them. The experience with which they begin is that of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And each writer, in his own peculiar way, relates the significance of that death and resurrection by choosing which stories from the life of Jesus will be told, where the emphases will lie, and perhaps even what will need to be invented in the story in order to communicate clearly the significance of the end and new beginning which is found in Jesus.
John had come to understand that Jesus had revealed to him the very heart of God. As such, Jesus must have had the closest possible relationship to that Heart, so close that Jesus must always have had this relationship. And so John declares with confidence of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is not a mere assertion. John is promising: the Jesus you are going to meet in the story I will tell you can bring you to the heart of all things, and to your own heart.
We newcomers to the Christian faith – including its less thoughtful critics – quite naturally begin at the start of the Gospels and read to the end. But, to say it again: the beginnings of the Gospels are in fact their conclusions. Knowing who they believed Jesus to be, John and the others effectively wrote their accounts of his life backwards. As much as John declares to us that “In the beginning was the Word…” he also asks us: how could it have been otherwise, given who I have come to see Jesus to be?
While we may have to take the Christmas stories up as a place to begin, they can only be tentatively received as the beginning. In fact we must, in the end, come to be able to write our own “Christmas” stories, our own conclusions in faith. This doesn’t mean that we need to “Australianise” the stories, replacing the biblical characters with swagmen, surf life-savers, and joeys. That’s good fun, but it doesn’t help. And writing our own Christmas stories doesn’t mean that we should try to pull together our strongest desires and greatest needs in order to create a job description for a prospective god. That’s what we already do most of the time, and so far it hasn’t helped us very much.
To write our own Christmas stories, in a way comparable to what the gospel writers did, would be to begin with a thought, an experience: that in Jesus we meet the one who really matters. In particular, it would be to begin with the thought that the most important thing in the world is this particular person dead on a cross, and then to measure against that other things we previously thought important, or unimportant. It is this re-shuffling of what it is important which gives us our familiar Christmas stories and readings: kings ought not to be born in stables or greeted first by shepherds or forced to flee in fear of those who are supposed to welcome them.
We can know the Christmas stories and yet be completely untouched by them simply because they are still someone else’s story, someone else’s conclusions and not yet our own. In the absence of the background story, we might even dare to make one up, which accounts for the kind of silliness we read in “Christmas” opinion pieces in our newspapers around this time of year. This is the “tragedy” of Christmas as we know it – both in the church and outside of it: mistaking someone else’s conclusions for our beginning.
But should Jesus grab hold of us and we begin with him properly, then we’ll be in a position to write our own Christmas stories, our own stories of his beginning. These stories would speak about the origins of Jesus as the “must have been” which makes sense of what he has become for us. And this would be, more significantly, to re-write our own stories, for it will take what is most familiar to us, and most important to us, and throw it into a new light.
We desperately need such illuminating stories, both in the church and outside of it: new and enlivening ways of viewing ourselves.
Of course, we can’t contrive a meaning of Christmas for ourselves; we can’t convert ourselves. But neither do we have to. We are not required to fill ourselves with wonder at Christmas time, but simply to wonder: to wonder whether in fact there might something in all of this which we’ve missed, even after all these years, or because of them. We might marvel that these stories continue to wrestle with us as we wrestle with them and, if the blessing be given, we might begin to discover in our own entanglement with Jesus just where he begins with us, and what sort of story we would tell of his beginning, from our experience of the new end he has given us.
“Kid born in shed saves world” – “in the beginning was the Word” – this is where the Gospel writers end up, and they throw out an invitation to us to discover whether we can come to agree with them, though we might say it very differently. The conclusions of those who have gone before us are the invitation to us to follow them on a similar journey.
This Christmas, may all who hear that invitation respond, wondering; and may God in his grace bless them with wonder.