Sunday, December 22, 2013

a Christ-free Christmas?

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday, in between the Hospital's Christmas party at the Golf Club and the Carol Service in the Colliery, I sat down with the family in front of the fire to watch the Ice Age Christmas Special. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, 'Ice Age' is a series of animated movies set in, you guess it, the Ice Age and features as it main features a Woolly Mammoth, a Sabre-toothed Tiger, and a sloth.

Even though the cartoons are ostensibly about the antics of extinct animals from thousands of years ago, the characters are essentially human in their behaviour and emotions … and of course the values are pretty much what might be termed 21st Century Hollywood Politically Correct … which means that they are very pious on the surface about issues such as feminism and equality, inclusiveness, and suchlike, even as they reinforce many of the stereotypes around these issues in subtle ways …

This is all merely by way of background. And please don't misunderstand me – I find them fairly enjoyable and have no great objections to them; I just harbour no illusions about them either. But there were some aspects of the Christmas special that gave me pause for thought.

The clue as to why might be in the title: Ice Age Christmas Special. The film is set, as I pointed out, in the distant past, tens of thousands of years ago. And the first Christmas took place only two thousand years ago. So how can you have an ice-age Christmas Special that in any way reflects what Christmas is all about? The answer is, of course, you can't.

Oh, the movie was in many ways very cute. The sloth comes up with the idea of a Christmas Tree as an alternative to the mammoth's rather unwieldy Christmas rock (he says it'll never catch on); the tradition of giving presents exists; Santa Claus lives in the North Pole, making toys; some of the animals set out to find him to make sure they're not on the 'naughty list' – a concept the mammoth came up with on the spur of the moment because he's cross with the sloth for breaking his rock; on their quest to find him they are aided by a flying reindeer, and thus introduce Santa to Prancer and his crew; and they also find him the army of little helpers, thereby giving him the ability to not only make enough toys for every child in the world but also the ability to deliver them in his now flying sleigh.

As I said, all very cute. And yet, there was something niggling at me during the whole thing. How could you have Christmas long before the time of Christ? Bad enough that they had Santa Claus, whose full name is Saint Nicholas, a man who was a bishop of Christ's Church before he took on the role of world-wide gift giver, running around in his red suit thousand's of years before his time; but there seemed something profoundly wrong with taking one of the chief festivals of the Christian faith and ripping it from its context and jamming it into the pre-historic past.

It was, to my mind, saying that Christmas without Christ is fine. That Christmas was really all about the tree, the decorations, the presents. If you have those, you have Christmas. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised: in many ways the movie only reflects much of what goes on in society … that for many the 'perfect Christmas' only has Christ as an optional extra … something that is true even of those who consider themselves Christian in a vague sort of way …

Please don't mistake me – I do think Christmas should be about celebration; but celebration for the right reason, not celebration for the sake of it; and I do think the giving and receiving of gifts is a lovely and appropriate tradition … after all, it mirrors what took place at this time all those years ago, when humanity received the greatest gift of all, God giving of himself to us in the Christ-child … why would we not celebrate? Why would we not do things that reflect our joy and attempt to share that joy with others?

And if Christ is not at the heart of it all, then what are we celebrating? That the sun has risen on another day? That another year nears its end? That it is the middle of winter and we have survived so far? Christmas without Christ is a hollow event; and Christ with Christmas is a joyous event, with or without trees, tinsel, a turkey-dinner, and a stocking stuffed with toys. Because it is the day our Redeemer came to save us from our sins, to earn for us, through his selfless self-giving, eternal life.

That is why I rejoice. I pray that is why you do also. Let us all pray that all the world will rejoice for that reason also. Amen.

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