Ahhhhhhh.... Christmas. The heady smell of tinsel and wrapping paper, making a list and checking it twice, thrice... repeatedly... to ensure nothing and no one is forgotten. What we previously considered to be the usual frantic run up to Christmas has been ramped up beyond anything we could have envisaged courtesy of a pandemic. For some people, this will be their first Christmas together for two years. Others will miss out again...
And some will be glad of the excuse.
I sometimes wonder why we do it to ourselves and each other. Why so many homes have multiple Christmas trees, colour-themed for each room, and other homes can't afford even one. Why many kids will get everything their parents hope will make them happy, and other kids will wonder why Santa Claus likes the kids whose parents are well-off better than those whose parents don't have much money.
There's a term which encapsulates so much of what we face at Christmas time. Affluenza: a psychological malady combining the words affluence and influenza - used to describe the voracious, insatiable lust for more, and still more, that consumerism spawns. Psychologists suggest affluenza is often accompanied by crippling emotional and psychological stress, one of which is the fear of not being seen to have a perfect life. Instagram and Tik Tok provide the evidence to back that theory up.
And that's a problem, because who has a perfect life? No one that I know. In fact, the more stuff we need to make our lives perfect, the less perfect it appears to be because there's always someone who has more, better, sooner. Someone whose life is admired more than ours.
We who live in the West, who drive a car and can pay our rent or our mortgage and feed our family every day, are among the 1% richest people in the world. That's less difficult to believe now, when our televisions show millions of refugees from war, climate crises, and brutality of every kind, lining up at borders and crowded into refugee camps. In this season, it's even more difficult than usual to watch those news reports, surrounded as most of us are by our glittering lights and, especially on the big day, food, glorious food.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not a Grinch. I love to be with my family and friends at Christmas. I love the camaraderie and the lovely food, and the exchanging of presents, but, to be honest, the presents are the least of it... as many kids who received too much stuff so clearly display by their perfunctory thanks and obvious lack of interest. The overwhelming artificiality, glitz and too much of everything makes me uneasy when I know that in other places, maybe even just down the road, are families and individuals for whom it's a very tough day.
I think about Joseph and Mary with their toddler, hearing from God that they needed to hightail it out of where they were staying and get down into Egypt to save the Saviour . Right after they got away, every little boy under two was killed by vicious thugs who would rather kill babies than run the risk of being falling foul of the homicidal King Herod. I don't suppose they called fleeing families refugees in those days. They were just people trying to get to safety, running for their lives. Lots of biblical families did it. We are horrified that such a thing happened, and glad that Jesus got away with His life but we rarely consider His status as a refugee. We don't identify with those who didn't do anything to help that little family, nor with those who did what they could to destroy them, but there's so much more to the story than the star, the angels, and the gold, frankincense and myrhh.
God was not watching from a distance. He empathised with His creation to such a degree that He reduced Himself to the lowest and most insignificant rank of humanity... He became a baby, ignominiously making his laboured way out of the womb of an unmarried teenager. Birthed in squalor, raised in poverty, unrecognised by His own people, the God who came to earth laid down His own life to give life to anyone who could see beyond the surface and into the Kingdom of God. His name, Emmanuel, literally means God with us, whoever us is...beginning with the poorest and most marginalised and working out from there to the multitudes of whosoever believes in Him...
The God who created the world and everything in it, didn't become the world's most splendid ruler. That would have been too easy. He became the poorest of the poor, the lowest of the low, so that everyone ... everyone... could know that when we read God so loved the world... it would include me.
Emmanuel! The God who is with us no matter what. That's so much more astonishing than all the lights and decorations. It's so much more satisfying than the food we have ... or don't have. The most powerful prayer any of us could pray in this season and in every other, for ourselves, our friends and family, our enemies, is:
Come... Oh Come, Emmanuel... and the amazing thing is that He has responded already. All we have to do is receive the God who is with us. He doesn't stand in judgement. He never did. The God who is with us came with love, and that's the reason He stays.