The Christmas stories were not written for children but as preludes to the adult message of God in Jesus walking in solidarity with the entire human family.
If Jesus were to visit us again, how puzzled he would be with our Christmas. He would be wondering who is this Santa who seems to be everywhere, a feel-good guy certainly, but wanting us to spend up big. Yet for all the commercialism of this season, for many people around the world, whatever their beliefs or religions, Christmas is rather a hopeful celebration of good will among peoples, and a time for families and friends to gather, often expressing their love and esteem in gift-giving.
No one knows the date of Jesus’ birth, and perhaps it was not important to record it in Jesus’ time. The first record of Christmas being celebrated comes from a mid-fourth century document mentioning that it was celebrated in Rome in AD336. After AD378 the practice was adopted in the Eastern Church.
The date of 25 December marked the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere, a fitting natural link for the new life promised by Jesus. The pagan feast of Sol Invictus appears around this time, perhaps as a rival to Christmas by the pagan temples according to some scholars.
Christmas stories for adults
We are all familiar with Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth but these can be difficult to understand. They are not fairy stories for children but express beliefs of the early Christians about who Jesus was and his message.
The Christmas stories express graphically the divine presence invested in Jesus, something quite startling and even shocking for pious Jews as the first Christians were. It is not surprising that many people today also find the claims of Christians so confronting, even preposterous: that the timeless and mighty Creator should take flesh as a human child in an astonishing commitment to walk with the human race.
Yet for believers, this is what the Incarnation means, God in Jesus expressing his total commitment to the human story and becoming part of it. Jesus’ life and words thus take on great significance for Christians, demonstrating God’s absolute solidarity with us in our struggles for love and life, and especially when we are afflicted by tragedy and distress.
Few of us can be unmoved by the Christmas hymns and music, evoking childhood memories and our yearnings for love in our families, for a more caring world, for peace in our nuclear age, for an end to acute poverty and hunger, and for global action to address global warming and preserve the environmental integrity of the planet with all its life systems.
When we read that Mary and Joseph trudged to Bethlehem for the Roman census, though Mary was heavily pregnant, and gave birth to her baby in the shelter of a cave or stable, we can readily think of women and families in similar dreadful plights, fleeing violence in Myanmar, Syria, Iraq or Yemen. The story invites us to concern and practical solidarity with others in such frightful trouble.
St Matthew recounts that Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the boy child as a threat to his power. How many millions today have fled their homelands because of fear or threats to their lives? The account invites us to consider how well we in Australia have responded to people seeking shelter with us from such persecution, as in Manus Island and Nauru perhaps.
The Christmas stories depict the divine presence (the star, the angels) in the midst of hardship (the journey and stable) and indeed horror (flight and Herod killing the innocent children). The stories are a prelude to the message of Jesus, that God identifies personally with all people in distress, whatever their belief. Jesus urges and expects us to love and treat others as we would love God.
One can only wonder what a difference it would make for our human wellbeing on our fragile planet if more of us took this message to heart and seriously wrestled with what it meant in practice today.
Bruce Duncan is a priest of the Redemptorist Congregation and lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union within Melbourne’s University of Divinity.