The greatest Christmas gift is that of God himself

Christmas is a joyful time as believers celebrate the birth of Jesus and as non-believers join in the spirit of general goodwill.

By Adam Kula
Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 8:00 am
The birth of Jesus, depicted in an altarpiece made in 14th-century Florence, for the church of San Pier Maggiore (now displayed by the National Gallery)
The birth of Jesus, depicted in an altarpiece made in 14th-century Florence, for the church of San Pier Maggiore (now displayed by the National Gallery)

It is also a time at which extra thought is given to others in need.

Because on the first Christmas night Mary and Joseph could find no regular accommodation in Bethlehem, but had to make do with some space in a stable, people often make a special effort at this time of year to support a charity that cares for the homeless.

One particularly striking example of such care recently reported by the BBC was Scottish lady Helga Macfarlane’s generosity to an Afghan refugee family in providing them with a flat in Aberdeen.

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Burhan Vesal had been an interpreter for British forces in Afghanistan and had feared for his life at the hands of the ruthless Taliban. He and his wife Narcis, a gynaecologist, and son Sepehr had managed to escape from Afghanistan on a Royal Air Force flight.

Helga Macfarlane had wanted to return the compassion shown to her mother, a German refugee who had been an interpreter for the British Army during World War II and who had only made it to Britain because of help she had received from different people on her way, and from the British Red Cross.

Even just one good turn can inspire another.

The religious reasons for the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus are well known. Christians believe that in him God entered our human story in a sacred way and that in doing so he was nothing less than the saviour of the world.

Christian teaching asserts that anyone wanting to know what God is like needs just to look to him.

Now there’s a thought.

Perhaps one of the most paradoxical things when one actually does look at Jesus, through the witness of scripture, is that he is in fact not at all a religious leader as we know religious leaders to be.

Our religious leaders head institutions, but when it came to the religious institutions of his day, Jesus was the proverbial ‘boat rocker’.

I remember once reading a study of institutionalism and the verdict was that institutions are in fact a fundamental part of human social functioning. The churches therefore understandably are institutions but they are also communities of faith. They can never really be de-institutionalised but they can be renewed.

When speaking of the churches as institutions, we appear already to be miles away from the person Jesus is seen to be, the challenger of the establishment, the man who could get to the heart of any issue with just a few totally inspired, and simple, words.

For example: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

No big words there and yet how deeply true and also how utterly subversive. The man from Nazareth was saying that the religious teachers, by placing such burdens on ordinary people when it came to Sabbath observance, had in fact lost sight of the spiritual wood for the regulatory trees.

Perhaps one might conclude, sadly, that because of his deeply challenging message it is no wonder the infant of Bethlehem was to end his earthly life on the cross of Calvary.

He was put to death, in the most cruel way, by the Roman authorities at the behest of the religious leaders supported by the cries of the mob.

The phrase ‘church and state’ could never be more chilling.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving gifts and in giving our gifts we can aim to echo the presenting of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh by the Magi from the east who came to worship the infant Christ.

Yet by giving and receiving gifts we also can symbolically affirm that Christ himself is God’s gift to the world, the gift of himself.

Giving is to be done with a big and good heart. The Christmas gifts we give are not to be gifts of duty but, rather, gifts given with generous hearts and expressing genuine love for one another.

Yes, there is something immensely liberating about the things Jesus of Nazareth taught, about who he was and about the truth he conveyed through his words and example.

This is not to decry the churches as institutions but it is to say that they do come with spiritual health warnings.

The churches are attempts to embody and convey the Christian message. Yet they have their undoubted flaws and many people have been greatly hurt and supremely disappointed about how the churches at times have acted.

People of faith can be decidedly unsuccessful at practising holiness.

However, the consolation is that, despite this, in being with those who sincerely strive to be holy, one could not be in better company.

One favourite Christmas carol, referring to the night of Jesus’ birth, gently calls out: “Still the night, holy the night.”

Christmas is a time truly to celebrate that holy event in Bethlehem. The holy child makes for a holy man, and his holy birth makes for a holy night.

– Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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