The heart of the Christmas story is not one of escapism - Gavin Matthews

Although most of my children have left home, when we get together at Christmas they still pull out the Nativity! DVD. That’s the 2009 charm-fest starring Martin Freeman as the lovelorn primary teacher who stages an uber-cute nativity play in Coventry Cathedral, and wins back his girl.

It’s a pageant of tinsel and angels and a thoroughly sentimentalised version of the birth of Christ which takes our family nostalgically back to days when they would giggle uproariously at the infantile antics of the irrepressible teaching assistant, Mr Poppy. In contrast, a rival school stages a dark horror nativity play called Herod! The teacher responsible for this, has pretentious aspirations to high art but completely misses the Christmas spirit!

If lockdown allows, we’ll watch it together again this year.

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The major issue with our sentimental nativity fun is that it hides the Christmas story behind a veil of tinselled schmaltz. The reality was of a vulnerable mother, giving birth in difficult conditions in an outhouse, while paranoid local warlord Herod plotted the child’s murder. Worse still, when the celebrated wise-men from the East appeared, they presented the child with myrrh. This was certainly an expensive gift, but was also an embalming oil – and a symbol of death. That is hardly the essence of the Christmas spirit in which ‘all is calm, all is bright’.

Importantly though, this more difficult side of the Christmas story—which involves suffering, exile, and symbols of death, speaks more directly and powerfully into our experience than the usual cosy rendition of the tale. While sentimentality offers us light relief from pandemics, lockdowns, and depressions; the true heart of the Christmas story is not one of our escapism; but of ‘incarnation’; God coming to us.

The Christian hope is not that we will be borne away from harsh realities on angelic wings of distraction, nostalgia, and entertainment, but that we will be joined here on earth by a God who will embrace both it and us; and then begin to remake this world again.

As such, the Christian faith proclaims that the sufferings of this earth are both real, significant, and matter. That when Christ came into this world, God embraced humanity – with our faults, flaws, and our suffering. So too, when people encounter Jesus Christ today in a spiritual sense, they do not experience being transported out of this world into an illusory snow-dome; rather they welcome the invasion of God into their very life and being. And when he comes, he comes with a hope that depends not on the ephemeral trappings of season’s greetings – but with profound inner peace, forgiveness, comfort, joy, purpose, and the hope of an eternal new heaven and a new earth to come.

Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote; “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” What 2021 might bring, we do not know; but the true hope of Christmas is born in the frailty and brutality of the birth of Christ – the God who meets us in the storms of life and says to us all, “Come to me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.

Gavin Matthews for Solas

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