I find one of the first things I say to friends at this time of year is ‘what are you doing for Christmas.’ Here is another question for you, my friends: what are you doing with the Christmas story this year? There are many ways of coming to the Christmas story. I’d like to consider three: with the head, with the hands, and with the heart.
The head is relied upon by those who question everything; hands are used on behalf of those who suffer; and the heart is involved for those who come to worship.
First the head. This is the way I came to the Christmas story, or really to the whole Christian faith, as an adult. I was 31, and I had to work it out with my head, maybe because that’s my personality. Also I had to find out if it was respectable to be a Christian. In the end I was helped by my discovery that there are some very clever people who are believing Christians. I was ready to rely on their cleverness.
The head approach might ask of the Christmas story, what can we really know about the birth of Christ? The head approach wants to work it all out, and tries to reach a conclusion that will be free of error. The head approach wants to know that the bible is not a work of fiction, and that what we are told by Matthew and Luke really does have a certain value.
For an event that took place 2000 years ago we know a surprising amount about the nativity. This is in spite of the fact that the ancient writers liked to spin a good yarn. No realistic historian today doubts that Jesus of Nazareth was born and lived in first century Palestine, and that he was put to death in Jerusalem. Nor is there any doubt that he was a gifted teacher, maybe the greatest that has ever lived. Nor any doubt that he made an extraordinary impact on the world for one man from a backwater of the Roman empire. But the sheer weight of balancing all the conflicting claims of this head approach keeps many thinking people from discovering what was truly wonderful about the Nativity: God became a human being like us.
Then there is the hands approach to the Christmas story. This may be you, if you are an action sort of person. This approach to the infant born in Bethlehem comes from the favelas of this world. Favela is the Spanish word for squatter settlements of the poor in South America. People who live in them suffer greatly and struggle to survive. These struggling communities on society’s margins exist in many countries, including here in wealthy Australia.
The poor offer us a different meaning of Christmas. In favelas people don’t consult experts about what to believe. In the favelas, it is injustice, poverty and sin that stand in the way of believing the story of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas in the favelas of this world means that there is something to be lived out in practice and something to be done. The mystery of the Word of God coming among us as a newborn child calls for a transformation of our world. This is because the Son of God sheds light on how we really are. He leads us to see how we have accepted as normal a huge quantity of injustice.
The royal birth invites those who suffer and those who cause suffering to seek a new way of being human. In the favelas the story of the Nativity becomes real not by studying it but by practising it. So it is the approach of the hands. It focuses on the here and now, the present history of suffering, sin and evil. It asks the question: what good ought I to do, for all those for whom Jesus was born into the world?
The shepherds and the wise men from the East symbolise a third approach to the nativity in Bethlehem, that of the heart. They represent all those who come to worship and whose hearts catch fire at the sight of the child in the manger. They see it as the most beautiful expression of God’s love for us all. Only on our knees can we glimpse the wonder of God who comes among us, as the angel said, ‘to save his people from their sins.’ In front of the manger we can let go of all our fears for the future. Amongst the smell of the animals, we hold in our hearts the hope that we are on our way to God, who cherishes us with such everlasting love.
So the Christmas story holds out to us different possibilities depending on how God has uniquely called us. The manger scene confronts what we can know with our heads, what we ought to do with our hands, and what we may hope for in our hearts. We can encounter the holy child in the reading and discussion of our minds; we can meet him along the roads of life where real people meet real problems and challenges; and finally we can meet him in our places of prayer. Because in the infant of Bethlehem we find the fullness of truth, the ultimate good, and the beauty of God. It will take all our study, all our life, and all our worship to know him, and then it will take an eternity of being with him.