Peter Espeut | A more genuine Christmas this year
Christmas belongs to Christians, who created the feast to celebrate the great mystery of the Incarnation. The idea that God could take on flesh and become human is unthinkable to the Jewish mind: God – pure spirit – was “wholly other” to fleshy humanity. How could the creator who existed above matter (transcendence) actually become part of his creation (immanence)?
Worse: how could God – the author of all life – die? If God becoming human was an illogical contradiction, the execution of God by humanity was pure poppycock and nonsense! Paul of Tarsus – that great Jewish scholar and Pharisee – put it well: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles”.
The biblical doctrine of the Incarnation [“The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14)] has indeed been a stumbling block for centuries. Just as there are many who deny that Jesus is true God, there are even more who do not believe that he is true man. Those many who teach that human beings are fundamentally evil, with carnal minds, could never believe that Jesus is genuinely human; they believe that his humanity is overpowered by his divinity and, therefore, he is not really human like us.
If God became truly human, then humanity is fundamentally good, since God is the essence of goodness. Jesus could have sinned but did not – not because he was God but because he was fully human. He used his gift of free will – the same gift given to every human – to always choose to do what is right. Our challenge as Christians is to take Jesus as our model – to become as fully human as we can be, by using our free will to choose correctly in every situation. We are truly created in the image and likeness of God.
LIBERATION FROM THE EVIL
God becoming human is therefore something to celebrate robustly, for that event announces the liberation of humanity from the clutches of the evil one. It is indeed good news – glad tidings of great joy! What a gift!
Mainstream Christianity is clear that Jesus was not born on December 25; no one knows when Jesus was born – not even the time of year. But since we wish to celebrate the Incarnation, a day was selected using theological criteria.
Theologically (and poetically), the world was said to be in darkness before the coming of the Redeemer, who would be the light of the world (see John 1). The darkest day of every year (the day with the longest night) is December 21 (the winter solstice), and so it made sense to celebrate Christmas after that day – when (poetically) the light began to conquer the darkness.
Different cultural practices grew up around the celebration of Christmas in Europe and elsewhere. In countries with snow in December, evergreen trees are a stark and beautiful symbol of life in the midst of forests of bare leafless trees. Evergreen trees became a symbol of life amidst death – a perfect symbol to be associated with Christmas.
We have no snow in Jamaica, but we imported the tradition of Christmas trees anyway, along with other Christmas traditions from other lands, including the singing of Christmas songs (carols), Christmas dinner, and gift-giving. Many Jamaicans not so close to religious practice identify Christmas less with the Incarnation and its profound implications, and more with lights, food, drink, Grand Market, and Christmas bonuses. “Christmas a come, me wan’ mi lama”. One could say that pagans have captured Christmas, and turned it into a marketplace and a festival of bacchanalia.
COVID-19 restrictions – including small parties or no parties, and early nightly curfews – will cause a dramatic reduction in Christmas merriment this year, causing some to wonder if their ‘Christmas’ is being cancelled.
But far from it, this is likely to mean that Christmas celebrations this year will be focused on the original Christmas story, church services, and small family gatherings. A reduction in the peripherals and an emphasis on the essentials is likely to mean a more genuine Christmas this year.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Send feedback to email@example.com