‘Tis the time of year to offer each other benisons for the festive season – we can’t offend secularists by using the word Christmas, and for some reason “safe” has become the blessing du jour.
We mean these good wishes sincerely, even in the shallow, truncated form that we have been reduced to, but most of us don’t expect them to be fulfilled. Safe, maybe, but “happy” is a lot to expect.
Now that Christmas has been almost totally removed from the realm of the religious and sacrificed on the altar of materialistic consumerism, I wonder what Jesus would make of our modern Australian Christmas?
Of course, Christmas is not mentioned in the Bible, and is probably a 4th century adaptation of pagan practices. That is enough to disqualify it for some devout believers, but not for me – it is part of Christianity’s genius that it has been so adaptable over two millennia.
I don’t think Jesus would have objected to another holy day in the Christian calendar. He taught that the Sabbath was made for the benefit of humans rather than a religious obligation to bind us, and was sympathetic to the downtrodden masses who most benefit from a day off and a feast.
It is trite to say he would be dismayed by the consumerism that dominates the day associated with his birth (wrongly – whenever he was born it was not December 25). But it is true. The man who cast out the money changers from the Jerusalem Temple, saying they had made the house of prayer a temple of thieves, would surely be distraught at the different agendas now attached to his name.
I suspect he would dislike the annual dedication to the birth of the Saviour (for Christians) and family togetherness (for everyone), feeling these should be a focus on the other 364 days as well, and he might find the family aspect rather sentimentalised and saccharine, honoured as much in the breach as the observance.
What might disturb him more than that would be the sanitising of the Christmas story, whose impact has been gradually reduced by editing out the exhaustion and humiliation of the parents, the discomfort of the stable, the dirt, the smells, the blood, the flies, the contractions, the danger both of the delivery and of Herod’s agents. It must have been urgent, uncomfortable and unsentimental.
In the end, though, the wonderful timeless aspects of Christmas, ancient and modern, might bring a positive verdict. It is still associated in the public mind with generosity, self-sacrifice and love for a reason. It can still bring a sense of wonder, mystery and enchantment. Even degraded, it is precious.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.