On National Radio recently Chris Laidlaw interviewed me after listening to a brilliant reflection on Christmas by journalist Wayne Brittenden. In it he accurately pointed out that the Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity by having the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE focus on Jesus’ birth and death, instead of his life, a life which challenged the power of the State and religious authorities. Constantine knew what he was doing. Jesus was a subversive calling for a different kind of world than one embodied in the Roman Empire. Constantine wanted Christianity to unify the empire not undermine it, so Jesus the man had to be reduced to being born and dead, rising again in an unthreatening form to the power he had rebuked in life. It was Constantine who set the date for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. He chose to usurp the non-Christians celebration of the rebirth of the sun god during the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice. He seemed to know that a good party will distract us from what is important. Until that time Easter was the only major festival of the church. Now Christmas far surpasses it in popularity.
I think part of the reason is you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the story, the carols, Christmas trees, parties, and gifts. Only the most cynical Scrooge does not find delight in a child’s first encounter with Santa’s knee. And if Christmas doesn’t do more than that, if we aren’t in some way transformed as we live out the next 364 days before the next Christmas, then Constantine’s effort to sanitise Jesus' message continues to keep the world safe for the powerful and those who would exploit the poor, and keeps the church on its current road to irrelevancy.
I want to push back a little this morning by telling you a story by one of my favourite authors and theologians, Frederick Buechner. He is the one who taught me “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
He told this story one Christmas Eve.
“As the Italian film La Dolce Vita opens, a helicopter is flying slowly through the sky not very high above the ground. Hanging down from the helicopter in a kind of halter is the life-size statue of a man dressed in robes with his arms outstretched so that he looks almost as if he is flying by himself, especially when every once in a while the camera cuts out the helicopter and all you can see is the statue itself with the rope around it. It flies over a field where some men are working in tractors and causes a good deal of excitement. They wave their hats and hop around and yell, and then one of them recognizes who it is a statue of and shouts in Italian, "Hey, it's Jesus!" whereupon some of them start running along under the plane, waving and calling to it. But the helicopter keeps on going, and after a while it reaches the outskirts of Rome, where it passes over a building on the roof of which there is a swimming pool surrounded by a number of girls in bikinis basking in the sun. Of course they look up too and start waving, and this time the helicopter does a double take as the young men flying it get a good look at the girls and come circling back again to hover over the pool where, above the roar of the engine, they try to get the girls' telephone numbers, explaining that they are taking the statue to the Vatican and will be only too happy to return as soon as their mission is accomplished.
“During all of this the reaction of the audience in the little college town where I saw the film was of course to laugh at the incongruity of the whole thing. There was the sacred statue dangling from the sky, on the one hand, and the profane young Italians and the bosomy young bathing beauties, on the other hand - the one made of stone, so remote, so out of place there in the sky on the end of its rope; the others made of flesh, so bursting with life. Nobody in the audience was in any doubt as to which of the two came out ahead or at whose expense the laughter was. But then the helicopter continues on its way, and the great dome of St. Peter's looms up from below, and for the first time the camera starts to zoom in on the statue itself with its arms stretched out, until for a moment the screen is almost filled with just the bearded face of Christ - and at that moment there was no laughter at all in that theater full of students and their dates and paper cups full of buttery popcorn. Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds there on the screen, that made them be silent - the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms. For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew belonged to them, or the face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.
“I think that is much of what the Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still, that is all. There is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for the moment itself, say, of Christmas, there can be only silence as something comes to life, some spirit, some hope; as something is born again into the world that is so strange and new and precious that not even a cynic can laugh although he might be tempted to weep.
The face in the sky. The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.”
That is my Christmas wish for all of us. That we might have a moment of stillness as we look at the face in the manger and recognize our own face and are transformed. That is my Christmas wish for the world. There is so much that should not remain the same including us. Hating people for their sexual orientation. Exploiting the earth for our selves with no thought for our grandchildren. Our neighbours deprived of adequate wages for the sake of stockholders. Violence against our own families. Children everywhere still hungry or ill housed. These have no place in our world.
Let us live the next 364 days knowing it is to our face in the manger that Mary sang her praise, not to Constantine and his ilk:
You, O God have shown strength with your arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.