We’ve read all about the community in Nebraska, and I have to confess that I read it with some mirth, where a group of Atheists rented out all of the public space months in advance of Christmas to put up a Jesus free Christmas display where the town’s Nativity scene had traditionally been displayed. It was rather mean spirited of them of course, and one can only imagine that the prank was planned and executed entirely without humour, but then it was no doubt in response to a brand of Christianity that takes itself far too seriously – without much humour – and which spends way too much of its time fretting about the lack of Christmas imagery on coffee shops’ paper cups. While no one deserves to have their Christmas ruined, and I doubt the lack of a public Nativity ruined anyone’s Christmas, the story gave me something to smile about during Advent.
We can sympathise with those who are tired of the public display of religion at this time of year, and we should bear those people in mind. Religion doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and there are places where its public expression is less than kind, and sometimes oppressive and harmful. Yet, having said this, Christmas, like many celebrations, is inescapably public. To the Christian the birth of Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s going public; the moment of solidarity when the maker of the universe was born to us. This story continues to have meaning, and it continues to carry with it the power to change things. If God chose to be with us then we – every last one of us – are important. At its centre, it is this truth about humanity that is the meaning of our celebration. As much as God is with us, we are reminded that we too are with God.
Our Christian joy at the presence of God with us and for us, of which Christmas reminds us, is also the means by which we can see clearly the greatest scandal of our faith. It is not that coffee cups or town squares lack enough tacky motifs of the season, but that today – on Christmas day – tens of thousands of refugees just like the Holy Family are sleeping out in the winter’s frost all over Europe because our nations have decided to play the part of the innkeeper, telling them there is no room. So many families out in the cold highlights also the scandal of the homelessness our states’ complete indifference to human suffering has allowed for longer than any of us can remember. Christian celebration of a nice story while ignoring a cruel reality is a scandal, and a most wicked scandal at that. Perhaps it was with this scandal in mind that the pranksters in Nebraska did what they did.
It’s Christmas, and maybe now isn’t the time for harsh reminders. You’re right. There is little we can do right now to make this better, but there is tomorrow and the days and weeks and months after that. Today as we celebrate the story we would do well to make its meaning real in the lives we lead – whether we are Christians or not. Having the goodness and generosity of heart to say welcome to the stranger is a moral triumph that is so much greater than mere Christianity – it is human precisely in the way that today we are told God became human.
I pray you have a wonderful and joyous Christmas.