There was a lot of trash in the street and on the sparse grass along the sidewalk, and some of it had been thrown into the tin barrel and was burning slowly, keeping people warm. It was a chilly night, but nothing out of the ordinary for December along the western shore of the Mediterranean. Most of the members of my group of Salvationists came from other parts of the world and we brought our own experiences of Christmas to the circle around the barrel.
For a couple of us, Christmas meant a warm summer’s day with barbecue in the shade. For myself, Christmas was inextricably interwoven with snow and cold, an old overweight man with a big white bushy beard, dozens of festive gatherings and hundred of miles dancing, walking, and singing Christmas carols with friend and foe around adorned fir trees.
Whatever our cultural Christmas package contained, it had something to do with the weather, the food or the particular cultural traits from whence we came. Here in the Alboraya section of Valencia, Spain, I had definitely stepped out of my comfort zone: They didn’t even recognize Christmas Eve as the main event! Shopping went on till eight in the evening, for crying out loud! Back home, where we did things like the Apostle Paul would have ordained them–had he thought of it–last-minute panic shopping was done by two p.m. Everybody went to church at four p.m. Then we all walked home while enjoying the falling snow in the dark winter night talking about the soon-to-be-devoured scrumptious meal consisting of ribs, sauerkraut and medisterpølse and the subsequent opening of gifts from under the tree.
As I write this, we are just a few days from entering the new millennium, and social scientists and other observers tell us that we are living in a pre-Christian world. We are questioned about the political correctness of laying Christian claim to the calendar event where the “sun turns.” In a McReligion climate where the Carpenter from Nazareth is simply one more of an increasingly large number of options for morals and life-choices, should anyone be surprised that there is hardly anything left at this time of year to celebrate his birthday?
Our view of God is too small; we try to fit him into our limited categories. We have only allowed The Holy Spirit varying degrees of influence to shape our cultures. Many habits and rituals, religious and irreverent, have been included wholesale, adopted or have been “sanctified” to be part of the modern-day Christmas season. Over our greed and stress, unfulfilled yearnings and consumerism we drag a veneer of Christian terms and the reason for any season is pushed aside, if not into oblivion altogether.
The weather and the cultural traits, the trimmings and trappings around this event so easily become the main attractions. But, figuratively speaking, they are the “trash in the barrel”; they are not the fire within.
When immeasurable God was born into the world he brought hope. The Incarnation means that he becomes like us, looks like us, identifies with us, speaks our language, yet his essence remains forever unchanged. He affords us an idea of what God is like. The “essence” does not belong to any one culture but it engenders meaning to people in whatever situation or culture they may find themselves. The way we celebrate his birth will give us a good indication as to how well we have grasped the immensity of God’s love for us. Christmas is about sharing. God gave the best he had. In this we may be imitators of God; share with others that which is most important to you! Share the hope and implore others to come into his presence.
If we really are living in a pre-Christian world, what a great place to start, with the celebration of the birth of God into our context! God among us, God in us: hope to hopeless human beings.
That Christmas Eve in Valencia, Spain, around that barrel with the fire within, we shared a common focus, we shared our hope, we experienced togetherness and belonging and we were warm, and we played our best for him. Can you hear it?