Light is strongest when the night is darkest.
A couple of years ago, I had a meal with the cartoonist/poet/sage Michael Leunig. Although a long-time admirer, I had never met him before. When he recognized that his dinner companion was a priest, he quickly mentioned one of his cartoons. It had thrown him into fierce controversy with the church – and others – thirty years before. His memory of that bruising time was still fresh and painful.
The cartoon was published in the week before Christmas. The image was characteristically simple – he had drawn Joseph and a heavily-pregnant Mary, huddled in a bus shelter.
The little picture caused uproar. Charges of deliberate irreverence, even blasphemy, were tossed around. ‘The cartoon sullied Christmas,’ it was claimed. Letters pages in newspapers were clogged with debate. Pulpits fumed. Bishops thundered.
My gentle new friend sat, still bewildered, as he told me of that time. Three decades later the wounds were still tender .
Happily, a Sister of Mercy, touched by Leunig’s innocent intention of depicting that holy family as homeless like many others in their affluent city, invited Michael home for a meal. (Thanks, Rosemary!!)
The message of the violent reaction to his gentle challenge to the assumptions of popular Christianity should be a warning to us all – don’t mess with the Christmas story. Leave it wrapped up in its tinsel and ribbons. Kiddies with candles shining in their eyes. Silent Night playing through our shopping malls. Peace on earth for all. Only a cranky evangelist having a bad day would challenge that message. Surely.
But hang about. Stay with me for a minute. Let’s try to consider the Christmas story by going back to its roots.
It may surprise you to learn that only two of the four gospel writers say anything about the details of Jesus’ birth – and Matthew and Luke tell quite different tales of it. Both, though, are marked by violence, poverty, homelessness, hurtful confusion, child murder and much more.
Spend a minute with Matthew’s story…
Joseph recognises the young girl to whom he is betrothed is pregnant. He considers divorce with all of its attendant pain. The local king, tormented by insecurity, hears about the birth and enlists unwitting pilgrims (probably astrologers – after all they followed a star!) to tell him of the child’s whereabouts. Discovering he has been tricked the enraged king commands all infants under the age of two to be slaughtered in the region around Bethlehem. Joseph, Mary and the child flee their country. The story is typical of so many refugees. When the coast is clear the family eventually makes the onerous journey back to Nazareth.
Now consider Luke’s story…
A young girl in an obscure rural town of Nazareth is told she will conceive a son – without the agency of any man. Puzzled and afraid, Mary agrees to this bizarre invitation. With his pregnant wife, Joseph is forced to travel an onerous ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem – on a donkey. The child is born homeless and in extreme poverty. In the midst of brute animals and the filth and stench of a stable, his mother gives birth. Not a hand sanitiser or an antiseptic wipe to be seen. Tired shepherds and shining angels witness the miracle.
By contrast, Mark, writer of the first gospel, doesn’t touch the birth of Jesus at all. His story begins with Jesus as adult.
John, the last of the gospels, takes yet another approach. John is a poet. This gospel depicts Jesus as a brilliant light coming out of the darkness, and try as it may the darkness cannot overcome the light. Jesus is light emerging from within a brutal world; the miracle of grace shining through brokenness – all within the person of a young infant who would eventually grow to adulthood and die on a cross.
The point about the Christmas story is that if you try to simply emphasise the light and ignore the darkness, the message of grace evaporates into thin air – like the strains of piped carols in supermarket.
This year has been brutal – for many at least. Christmas is in danger of being seen as a time to put aside the harshness of a global epidemic, of unemployment, of destructive fires and floods, of family separations. There is a feeling – perhaps it’s longing – in the air to forget the pain. Let’s raise a glass, sing some favourites, and forget about the year that was. Sweep it under the carpet. Good riddance.
But if we forget the darkness too quickly, the light loses its brilliance.
The gospel stories of Christmas are the roots of our celebration, whatever form it might take, so here is a suggestion. Take a few minutes to find a bible and read those stories again. The exercise might provide fresh perspectives for jaded spirits, by going back to the sources and seeing again what the stories are saying.
And finally, to my friend Michael Leunig – a heartfelt but tardy apology. You reminded us not to forget a weary, travel-sore, homeless man with his exhausted and pregnant wife, crouched together in a freezing bus shelter. The simple visual story is not merely a call for help for those without food or shelter or crackers to pull. Your profound image contained the essence of Christmas. How could we have so completely missed your point?