Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why Christmas is for Everyone

As we celebrate Christmas it is useful to reflect on the significance of the day, what it really means and why it really is a celebration for everyone.

So we all know the reason is the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. This raises two questions, did Jesus exist and was this his birthday?

Last week I was in a conversation with someone who raised the line that if there really had been such a rebellious sect leader as Jesus then he would have appeared in the written records of the Romans, not just the Biblical tales. This rests on a common fallacy that historic facts are accurately recorded at the time, and are known as such from the moment they occur.

A good example was given on Coast Australia last week and the story of the massacre of Lizard Island.  When first reported in November 1881 Mrs Watson, her child and two staff were killed by natives.  The account was repeated in December...in a report that confirmed Mrs Watson's body had been hacked into pieces and thrown into the sea.  The real story was that Mrs Watson had floated to another island and died of thirst.  

On the basis of how "facts" do or do not get recorded, it is simply reasonable to allow the idea of Jesus as a historical figure as "fact". That the stories themselves might conflate the teachings of more than one rebel doesn't change the fact that we can talk of Jesus.

No matter what the truth of the lineage and birth of this person, no one believes he was born on 25 December. Certainly the biblical nativity stories do not correlate to mid winter.  It is generally acknowledged that Christians attached the celebration of Jesus birth to per-existing mid-winter festivities.  This is a demonstration of a feature we come to later, the universality of the message.

So now let's just focus on the world of Jesus. Israel was a country with a history as a religious state that effectively traced its successes and failures to the periods when the people were loyal or disloyal respectively to their God.  They believed they were a chosen people.

But the religion itself was practiced through "the law" and what you ate, circumcision and other superficial behaviours were interpreted as what the will of God required.

At the same time the country was occupied by Romans and the people "chosen by God" were looking for a leader to liberate them.

Into this environment came Jesus, who preached that the way to honour God was not to follow rules but to behave in certain ways ...most importantly through love of one for another.  When Jesus invokes his followers to believe in him it is usually interpreted as believing in his divinity, but it can equally be applied to believing his message.

And Jesus confounded the chosen people by saying that any person could be one of the chosen people by simply following Jesus, following the testimony of love.

Despite all the horrendous things done in the name of Christ, despite some of the distorted theology, it was the simplicity and universality of this message that explained its early adoption. And while the co-option of the faith to the State for some 1500 years (roughly 300 to 1800, longer in some cases) can explain a lot, the ability of the faith to be of use to the State came from the faith's intrinsic value.

So when it comes to Christmas everyone can celebrate an artificial anniversary of the birth of a man who taught the world that what matters is not ritual nor race but loving one another. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you can't believe in love without believing in Jesus.

I am saying that everyone who believes in love can celebrate Christmas.

Merry Christmas to you all.


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