By Peter Espeut
Yes, Christmas was originally about celebrating the birth of the Christ, but it has become something quite different. The retail sector has captured Christmas as its cash cow, as its annual bonanza. As a result, Christmas has been rebranded as the shopping season they wish it to be.
We can see how this aberration evolved. The Christian doctrine that "The Word", which created the universe, "became flesh and dwelt amongst us" (John 1:14) was revolutionary, and created a whole new religion. The initial focus was on 'redemption' and 'salvation' through the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but theological reflection led to greater appreciation of 'The Incarnation' - 'God becoming human'.
The powerful heresy of Manichaeism taught that the flesh was in itself sinful. We hear it today in talk like "Man is conceived in sin, and born in iniquity; and only by the Grace of God can he do anything good". For people who think like this, it is impossible for God who is "all-good" to take on flesh. It is essential to Christianity that Jesus was "true God and true man", so the Manichaeans are definitely wrong, and humanity can't be that bad after all.
If through the 'first Adam' humanity fell and needed a Saviour, then Jesus - the 'Second Adam' - reversed 'The Fall'. By taking all the sins of all humanity upon himself and crucifying them on the cross, Jesus wrought a fundamental change in all creation. Humanity was not just lifted up to where it was before, but taken even higher! God became human to teach humans how to be like God!
How the Creator could become part of creation is a mystery the human mind cannot fully comprehend; and how mortal humanity could share in the divinity of Christ is similarly mysterious. But Jesus, the Second person of the Blessed Trinity, taking on flesh and becoming human, was an important first step in the direction of salvation and redemption. There is a direct road from Bethlehem to Calvary.
The Church keeps this fact in our face, because on December 26 - the English call it Boxing Day - we celebrate the feast of St Stephen the deacon, the first Christian to be killed for his faith in Jesus. We should not let our delight with the baby Jesus in the manger cloud the spectre of Calvary in the distance, and Jesus' challenge to us to take up our cross and follow him.
And so, when we celebrate Christmas, we not only celebrate the birth of the Christ child; we also celebrate the lifting up of all humanity, including those some consider to be of no value. Jesus' actions elevated the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, the unclean, those possessed by demons - all the outcasts of society. In fact, the circumstances of his birth identify him with the marginalised: he was born not in a palace but in a stable, dressed in ill-fitting (swaddling) - obviously borrowed - clothes, and was laid in a box intended for cattle feed; his parents - although engaged - were not married when he was conceived, which carried some social stigma.
Christmas, then, is a time to reach out to the marginalised, to the poor and homeless, to those in prison, and those who are hungry - all of whom are, in reality, of inestimable value.
Jesus was born in the context of a family, with a mother and a father; Christmas is an important time for families.
And the message of the angels on that first Christmas night was "Peace on earth, goodwill towards all". Christmas is an important time for sharing food and drink with friends and neighbours - and strangers too.
The Magi brought gifts for the newborn king, and gift-giving has become associated with Christmas. And there the problem begins, for with so many millions of people buying food and drink and presents of one kind or another, Christmas, for many shopkeepers, has become nothing more than the season to make a fast buck.
Christmas begins on the eve of December 25, and the period immediately leading up to it is called Advent - a holy season of hope and waiting. The Christmas season lasts for 12 days up to the Feast of Epiphany (January 6), when we celebrate the coming of the Gentile Magi.
But retailers and radio and television stations have transferred Christmas to Advent, playing Christmas carols and showing Christmas movies, which all comes to an abrupt end on Boxing Day when Christmas is really is just starting. For many Jamaicans, Christmas is already over, even though it has nine days of celebration left to go!
In these increasingly secular days, we have to make a clear distinction between Christmas the Christian celebration and Christmas the commercial bazaar; otherwise the former could be totally overwhelmed by the latter.
Peter Espeut is a theologian and a Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org