“I don’t understand decaf,” I once heard someone say. “It’s like sex without the sex.” Coffee-mad Sydneysiders who scorn the dreaded decaf, I imagine, would be inclined to agree.
So it may come as a nasty surprise that Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek says that decaf products stripped of their essential ingredient—like “coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol”—sum up modern life.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we tend to celebrate Christmas.
For many of us today Christmas consists of a series of rituals that possess a much anticipated familiarity, pleasure and beauty. The season is linked with summer at the beach, spending time with friends and family, decorating the tree, exchanging presents and, for me, passing out on the couch after eating one too many of Aunty Sylvie’s rissoles at Christmas lunch.
Such routines are performed year in and out, becoming the source of wonderful memories that make up a life. But they can sometimes leave out what you might argue is the key element of Christmas—the content of the original story.
The central character is often missing. And if we don’t get rid of Jesus entirely, we make him safe and inoffensive. We decaffeinate him—by sentimentalising him as a paragon of babyhood through nativity scenes of the baby Jesus sleeping sweetly on a bed of straw. You can also spot this icky portrait of Jesus in the carols we sing: Silent Night says Jesus is “all tender and mild” while Away in a Manger claims “no crying he makes”.
It’s understandable why people go for a decaf Christ at Christmastime. Some people don’t believe in God, and so they emphasise Jesus’ human nature. Others are open to the idea of God, but the notion that God enters the world as a baby fails to convince. Then there are those who have been burnt so badly by the Church, or Christians acting appallingly in the name of God, that they want nothing to do with God and his people ever again. That’s understandable.
But I suspect that for many it’s mostly the idea of true belief that is discomfiting—just like too much caffeine can make your insides squirm. The fear is that belief always gets taken too far and is guaranteed, like nothing else, to turn ordinary folk into fanatics.
If the outcome is healing, comfort, and beauty then maybe Christ at full-strength is far preferable to his decaf offering.
There’s something in that. But what seems an apparent solution—a Christmas emptied of its troubling nature—drains the event of power and, strangely enough, the danger that we might find appealing.
We’re not used to thinking of Christmas as risky business but maybe that’s because we forget that Jesus actually grew up. And that Jesus the adult was clear about his mission, recounted in the gospel of Luke, to bring freedom for the prisoner, recovery of sight for the blind, and relief for the oppressed.
In that passage Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that adds that he’s come to “bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61).
If Jesus is God, as he says he is, then here is a glimpse into God’s heart for broken people. All that afflicts people is in his sights, as is the source of so much of the world’s discord—the dark human heart in us all. If you are open to the truthfulness of this story, such an agenda makes Jesus dangerous but if the outcome is healing, comfort, and beauty then maybe Christ at full-strength is far preferable to his decaf offering.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Lucy trembles in front of the lion Aslan. “Is he safe?” she asks nervously, though not even she would seriously want a lion without a roar. “Safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good,” comes the reply. If ‘dangerous but good’ is true of Aslan, it’s also true for the Jesus to whom Aslan points, as well as a Christmas full of Christ.
In a world full of fakes, people pride themselves on their ability to hold on to the real deal. Maybe this year we can encounter Christmas with the caffeinated Christ at its heart, and refuse to settle for the story stripped of its significance and meaning.
Justine Toh is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.