The Christmas gift Santa Claus can’t keep from us

Barney Zwartz explores the notion of 'grace' - a concept which is at the heart of the Christmas story in the Bible.

In an age when marketing and brands have never been so important, perhaps the most successful and influential is two millennia old: the Christian cross.

Once the ultimate symbol of Roman power and brutality – of death by crucifixion – it was marvellously subverted to become the ultimate symbol of love, sacrifice, service and grace.

As Monash University’s Professor Christopher Watkin puts it, the cross of Christ changes the “murderous declaration of imperial might to a message of grace and forgiveness”.

This concept of grace is one of the loveliest we have, whether elegance (as in ballet dancers), courtesy (as in graceful manners), or extended favour (as in a period of grace). But the paradigm of grace is theological: God’s freely given and unmerited favour to a self-willed and undeserving people, as described in the Bible.

In his new book, Biblical Critical Theory, Watkin writes that the great Christian scholar, C.S. Lewis, once summarised Christianity’s unique contribution not as incarnation (God taking human form), resurrection, nor an ethic of love — all of which are found in other religions — but as grace. “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity … Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

This idea of grace is often misunderstood even by Christians, so strong is the impulse to believe that we should be rewarded or punished according to our actions.

So many people say something like “I’ve tried to live a good life, God will see that and reward me”. What the Bible teaches is shockingly different: no human who ever lived can save themselves by their own efforts because we all fall short of God’s perfect standard.

But — and here is the central message of Christmas — God solved this dilemma by taking human form with all its frailties and suffering in order, ultimately, to die on the cross to restore us to fellowship with him. What we were unable to do for ourselves on our own merits, the Bible says, God did from love, an act of grace.

We do not have to contribute to our salvation and earn merit by our good deeds; instead, salvation is a gift.

Watkin points out that this grace is liberating. We do not have to contribute to our salvation and earn merit by our good deeds; instead, salvation is a gift and ethics an exercise in gratitude. The performance narrative is prominent in contemporary life, he says, and people on the “wrong” side of all sorts of debates are harshly judged. But the grace revealed in the good news of Christianity undermines this because those on the “right” side cannot feel superior, knowing that the criterion for being on the right side is mercy, not performance.

It is an essential aspect of grace, according to Melbourne University philosopher Christopher Cordner, that it must come from outside, though this need not be a religious understanding. It might just be the strength to carry on: “It might be the fact that you go on changing the baby’s nappy, or that you make the soup, or it might be larger-scale, something in the political dimension. It’s an openness to something coming in from without.”

Grace, like love, is a kind of summons to the recipient, a claiming of them in a way that ennobles them, Cordner says. “They are no longer just the person they were, they are part of something more than themselves, and you can say it comes from the other person, but in seeing someone through the eyes of love, you do see them as ennobled.”

One under-appreciated aspect of grace in the secular realm is its healing properties. Psychiatrist Louise Newman says that in the psychological therapies, finding oneself acceptable, finding peace, forgiveness or a meaning that allows hope, can be understood as grace.

Newman, professor of psychiatry at Melbourne University, has worked with victims of all sorts of trauma, including domestic and sexual violence, and with migrants who have experienced torture and genocide.

“We’re helping people who have lost that sense that they can make any coherent meaning of what has happened to them, who are terribly, terribly damaged,” she says.

The other aspect of grace is that there can be movement from shame and guilt. Many of the trauma survivors she works with, though they were in no way complicit in what happened to them, end up feeling terribly guilty and ashamed, to the extent that they have no self-worth and feel close to death.

“They often keep pathological secrets, as fear becomes their inner reality – they are stuck in survival mode. These are the people who contemplate suicide on a daily basis,” Newman says.

One example is a woman from the former Yugoslavia whose baby, along with many other children, was killed in front of her. “She didn’t tell me for a year. She said: ‘I thought you would not like me once you heard this.’ She had nothing to do with it, she was rounded up with all the other women in her village, but she was absolutely haunted by it of course, and tried to kill herself.”

Grace means there is the possibility of connection that doesn’t blame the victim for her negative state, and the therapist might provide that, Newman says. It gives sufferers hope of a connection, a reflecting other, whether it’s a therapist or God: “It’s having someone there who offers a hand of meaning and connection in an existential sense which allows the victim to start working through what has happened away from the diminished self which is so flawed, there is no hope.”

Centre for Public Christianity senior research fellow Natasha Moore also finds an illustration of grace through psychology: the idea of non-complementary behaviour. She says humans normally respond in complementary ways: if you are kind to me, I’ll respond with kindness; if you’re angry and aggressive, I’ll mirror that. “Behaving in a non-complementary way, particularly meeting anger and rejection with love or peace, is a really counter-intuitive thing to do, and that’s what grace is.”

Human relationships need that oil of grace or they don’t endure.

Grace launches us out of an orbit, Moore says, whether the self revolving on itself or the way we revolve around each other. Grace can overcome the transactional nature of relationships. This sort of sacrificial behaviour is not common in public life, and still less in politics, where it is hard to extend grace across the tribal public square.

But it must exist in personal relationships, Moore says, because humans constantly mess up and hurt each other, accidentally or deliberately. “There has to be grace for relationships to endure. Within families, friendships, romantic relationships, people extend grace to each other all the time – and also don’t.

“Every time people forgive one another, or forbear, parents forbear with their children and vice versa, that’s extending grace and breaking a cycle that would otherwise corrode the relationship and ultimately destroy it. Human relationships need that oil of grace or they don’t endure.

“Grace creates the possibility of change, of transformation, of not being stuck in the ruts of our own faults or those intractable problems we have in relationships.”

Moore says Christians have, at least in theory, an extra motivation to show grace, which is that they believe God has shown them astounding grace. “If he’s extended us grace on such a scale and sacrificed himself for us, that makes the way others have failed us or our own failings seem petty.”

Christmas is the ultimate non-complementary move, she says – the opposite of the “have you been naughty or nice?” question Santa Claus asks. Humans have rejected God but instead of rejecting humans, God goes so far as to become human himself, as a baby, to suffer human frailties and indignities, and to dignify and restore the relationship: “He’s the one who breaks the cycle.”

Of course, in family life, Christmas celebrations are not always an unalloyed pleasure. Many families have one or more members who become bellicose after a drink or two, leading to serious and long-standing ruptures. And expectations can be so high, not least due to commercial messaging depicting delighted families with expensive trappings, that disappointment can seem almost inevitable. For poor families, Christmas can hold brutal reminders of their lack at every turn.

So we should all, believers or not, welcome Christmas partly as a family event and a time to count our blessings. And to forgive and forget if anyone at the table behaves badly.

Noted American pastor Tim Keller has observed that forgiveness, a form of grace, is fading in Western society. “And a society that has lost the ability to extend and receive forgiveness risks being crushed by the weight of recriminations and score-settling,” he wrote in the New York Times this month.

Social media plays a malign role, where missteps and impulsive posts are never forgiven but can be circulated in perpetuity while politics is filled with vitriol, and calls for reconciliation “sound like both-sidesism, a mealy-mouthed lack of principle and courage”.

Yet, Keller asks, what is the alternative to forgiveness? As a small-town pastor counselling married couples, he found those who embraced forgiveness usually survived but those who did not always parted.

“Without forgiveness, no human relationships or communities can be sustained. Without forgiveness, centuries-long cycles of retaliation, violence and genocide repeat themselves. Without forgiveness, you are more subject to heart disease and heart attacks, strokes and depression.

“We should forgive because it is profoundly practical. To fail to forgive is to undermine the health and coherence of one’s body, one’s relationships and the entire human community.”

Forgiveness needs a willingness by the bestower to sacrifice their interests for the good of the community, and here, Keller says, Christianity provides a resource unique even in comparison with other religions.

When you embrace the idea that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was done for you, the crucifixion becomes an act of surpassing beauty.

“At the heart of Christian faith is not primarily a wonderful, wise teacher (though Jesus was that, too) but a man who died for his enemies so that he could secure divine forgiveness for them. When you embrace the idea that Jesus’ self-sacrifice was done for you, the crucifixion becomes an act of surpassing beauty that … gives you both the profound humility and towering happiness, even joy, needed to forgive others.”

The Gospel of Luke recounts that, as Jesus is being nailed to the cross in agony, he prays for the Roman soldiers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

That is the pinnacle of grace, the model to which we are held.

Barney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013, is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.