In this age of secularism, Dr Joel Hodge argues that Christmas still matters.
As a celebration, the meanings and rituals of Christmas have changed for Australians and Westerners in major ways, particularly over the past 50 years.
The increased awareness of the rights and cultures of indigenous peoples and the growth of multiculturalism have led to a proper re-assessment of the place of the dominant Western culture in Australia and its attendant rituals and stories.
This has been accompanied by a broader movement in Western-European cultures in which the relationship to Christianity has become fractured.
With the breakdown of traditional family and cultural forms and the increasing dominance of capitalist materialism, the mass media, individualism, relativism and anti-religious forms of secularism, there has been a corresponding difficulty for many people in Western countries to contemplate and come to terms with the deeper questions of life – Why are we here? Where are we going? Where do we come from? What is the purpose and meaning of life? How should I relate with others? How should I seek the good and confront evil?
In the midst of these questions and despite massive social changes, Christmas has retained a central place in the Australian and Western imagination. Why is this so?
There are various sociological reasons that could be given for the importance of Christmas in Western cultural life – the importance it has as a family feast, the consumer enchantment with gifts, its timing (as a summer feast in Australia), and so on.
Alongside these reasons, one must also examine the intrinsic meaning of Christmas, which still seems to attract many people. As the large numbers of Church-goers at this time of year shows, many people still desire and seek some form of transcendent meaning for their lives – meaning that makes sense of their deepest yearnings and provides a broader framework to contextualise their lives. Even if this meaning is seemingly less acknowledged than in the past, there remains a need to be fulfilled.
The Christmas story has something unique that seems to appeal to many people: the story is about God becoming one of us - Jesus as 'Emmanuel', meaning 'God is with us'. This story presents the radical message of Christianity in a nut-shell: the infinite being who is beyond time and space and who makes all things – the 'God' who is the reason 'why there is anything rather than nothing' – comes to share our life in direct relationship with us.
In contrast to the myths of the ancient world, God in Jesus does not just temporarily take on human form; nor does he give himself superpowers to force his will on people. He becomes one of us as we are – finite, limited and on a quest to live authentically 'what it means to be human'.
The Christian Church struggled to fully understand this action on the part of God to become human – which is called the 'incarnation' – for hundreds of years. What could it mean that God really became human?
On one level, it makes little sense: How could the infinite God become a finite being? How could the Creator become one of the creatures? Christmas radically bursts these categories to present a God so fully concerned for the good of his creatures that he becomes one of them. If God is really God, he can do anything – in this case, both sustaining creation and becoming part of it.
But why would God do this? Early Christianity drew on and gave new meaning to an irregularly used Greek word, agape, to explain God’s action. Agape means a descending, self-giving love for the good of the other: "this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice." (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est).
God's incarnated love, shown at Christmas, expresses God's willingness to fully embrace his beloved – humanity – by sharing our life. By sharing life with us, God offers us the chance to share his life in full relationship.
Thus, Christmas leads to Easter and the Resurrection: we are offered the chance for our deepest yearnings for life, love and happiness to be fulfilled in sharing infinite love with God.
Though we appropriate the Christmas message at different levels and in varied ways, it still seems to resonate for many of us. There is a danger that in a world that has become increasingly individualised and self-focused that the only love that counts is self-love.
It is perhaps to rekindle and recharge the fires of love that Christmas attracts the attention of so many. Christmas reminds us that real love is always relational – it is drawn from the other and gives back to the other.
Thus, at Christmas, many will return to the source of love, in their different ways, to draw on its pure expression: to an all-powerful God who humbly offers himself in the form of a vulnerable existence, as a baby; a baby proclaimed as 'Prince of Peace', who wants to bring peace to our hearts, to our deepest yearnings, and to our relationships.
Jesus has no easy fixes – as his Cross shows – but he offers love to us this Christmas.