In one of the very large churches in a suburb of Los Angeles and not far from Disneyland, they present every year at this time their grand “Christmas Spectacular”.
The aim of this is to tell the story of the birth of Jesus with new and exciting realism. The angel who announces to Mary that she will be the Mother or Jesus is an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet dressed in diaphanous white. Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds and the three Kings are all carefully selected from Hollywood central casting. To the music of the Heavenly Choir, dressed in fluorescent robes, Mary enters seated on a donkey. She carries a real baby, but the baby has been given a mild sedative lest he disrupt the proceedings by screaming and bawling. The Shepherds appear driving a flock of sheep whose fleeces have been carefully shampooed, bleached and blow-dried.
The Three Kings are guided to the stable by the starlight of a laser beam and they arrive seated, very grandly, on camels. Before the Spectacular begins, the owners of the camels discreetly attend to them, lest they mar the proceedings by inappropriate and undesirable behaviour.
The highlight of the show is the arrival of Father Christmas on a sleigh, pulled by a team of reindeer. The reindeer have been rented from a company which specialises in hiring out animals for appearances in films and television commercials. While Father Christmas is distributing presents to the children, the reindeer are now carefully trained to stand still and not to butt the organist, as unfortunately happened on an earlier occasion. The whole atmosphere of the grand Christmas Spectacular is one of happy families, affluence, success, glamour, fun and joy. It is enormously popular, attended by thousands of people and frequently shown on television. Although the tickets are expensive, they are quickly sold out.
Now perhaps the only real difficulty about the Grand Christmas Spectacular is that it doesn’t seem to have too much connection with the original story. Certainly the New Testament tells us that the birth of Jesus is a time of joy, but the New Testament doesn’t really place the birth of Jesus in the context of happy families, affluence, glamour, success and fun.
“The light shineth in darkness” and in the biblical story of the birth of Jesus, it is the darkness which is all around. The story begins in St. Matthew’s Gospel, with Joseph contemplating divorce. He has discovered that the girl to whom he is betrothed is pregnant, and so plans to divorce her, lest disgrace should come on him and his family. He is, in the story, only prevented from this by the most powerful divine intervention. When Joseph and Mary set off to travel the eighty or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it was not a happy family outing. It was a tedious, dangerous and expensive expedition forced on them by the demands of an occupying power – the Roman Empire.
When they arrived at Bethlehem, there was certainly an inn, but there was no room in the inn. The birth took place in a stable. The Three Wise Men certainly brought splendid gifts of gold and incense, but they also brought myrrh – ointment used for the anointing of the dead. No sooner had the child Jesus been born, than his life was threatened by the jealousy of King Herod. Joseph and Mary and the Child are forced to flee for their lives to safety in Egypt. Herod orders the massacre of all male children of two years and under.
The New Testament description of the birth of Jesus is set in the context of doubt, upheaval, insecurity, poverty, squalor, jealousy, fear, danger, exile and death. It is a birth set against a background of darkness – the shadow side of human existence. And in this country, in Britain, our celebration of Christmas finds its origin in fear and darkness. As you will have been reminded many times, when the early Christian missionaries came to this country some fourteen or fifteen hundred years ago, they very wisely attached the Christian celebration of Christmas to an already existing Pagan mid-winter festival, a festival which had already been observed for many centuries.
Our long-distant ancestors, living in their squalid huts and surviving entirely off the land, found the dying of the year a terrifying experience. As the leaves fell from the trees and as the days grew shorter, darker and colder, it seemed to them as if the very world itself was dying. So, to revive their hope and their spirits, they had a midwinter festival of eating and drinking, and they kept before them their symbols of hope, fertility and renewal: evergreen plants like holly and mistletoe.
The Christmas story is not just a colourful fairy tale suitable for a grand Disney land Spectacular. It is the making of a profoundly important statement about your life and mine, and about the reality of our human existence. Christmas certainly is a time of festival and celebration. It certainly is, in part, about happy families, affluence, success, glamour, fun and joy. But it is also about doubt, upheaval, insecurity, poverty, squalor, jealousy, fear, danger, exile and death.
The distinguished mathematician and thinker, Albert Einstein, was once asked: “What is the most important question which it is possible for anyone to ask?” He thought about this and then replied: “The most important question is: ‘Is the universe a friendly place or not?’”
Is this life, with all its contradictions – this reality into which we have been born – ultimately evil, sinister and destructive, or is it ultimately gracious, merciful and caring?
To that question our Christian Faith does not provide a long list of answers. To that question our Christian faith provides us at Christmas with a picture, the picture of a mother with her child. And that picture is humanity’s most powerful symbol of unconditional love, grace and care. And at Christmas, it is that Light, that Divine Light, which shines in the darkness of our world.