Guest blogger Deb and her husband are great friends of ours and are part of Providence Church. They give sacrificially of their time, money (and house space) to help the marginalised and downtrodden in Perth. Here’s Deb’s reflection on why family makes a poor substitute for the gospel at Christmas time:
Several months ago my sister-in-law, now living overseas, gave me the contact details for a friend of hers in Perth. She told me this lady, let’s call her Paula, was interested in our church, so I emailed her some info and suggested we meet up. I didn’t hear back. Until yesterday, when she called me out of the blue.
Once I’d registered who she was, I asked the usual “how’s it going?” and Paula replied, “not great”. In a nutshell, she’s really struggling and evidently decided it was time to try again with the whole ‘church’ thing, hopefully this time with one that she finds a little less intimidating and more inclusive. She doesn’t have an easy relationship with her family back home in the UK, her mum is dying, and her marriage is breaking up. Having asked her if she has many friends in Perth, she listed a couple but commented on how it’s hard to get a chance to see them because they are always busy.
One of the things Paula said that really stuck with me was that she “hates Christmas”. Now, perhaps that is not so remarkable… I imagine there are many people who would express a similar sentiment with regard to the stress of the shopping, the food preparation, the family politics, etc. There’s no doubt that Christmas can be a uniquely stressful time, but for a lot of people that stress is a by-product of what, for many, is the whole point of Christmas: spending time with family. But for Paula, and no doubt thousands of others tucked away quietly in our neighbourhoods, that’s what makes Christmas so excruciatingly lonely. She said she chooses to work on Christmas Day, just so she doesn’t have to deal with it. Everyone else so busy with their families, while hers is far away, fraught with grief and conflict, and – closer to home – in tatters.
My husband and I have reflected, in recent years, on how easy it is for Christians to ‘swim downstream’ when it comes to making Christmas “all about family”, because, of course, family is a good thing. In fact, when functioning, it’s a WONDERFUL thing! Afterall, it was God’s idea. And since families are falling apart left right and centre, we Christians rightly see it as part of our devotion to the Lord and our witness to the world to invest in our own families – to keep them strong and thriving and attractive. However, we need to remember that the better the created thing, the more real and subtle the temptation to make it into an idol. To make it a ‘god thing’.
Of course, unlike most we probably attend church at Christmas, mean it when we sing the carols, and maybe do some creative advent activities or readings to get ourselves and our kids thinking about the ‘reason for the season’. We see Christmas as a great opportunity (one of two per year!) to have Christianity in the public sphere, and so we might give Christmas cards with pertinent Scriptures in them, invite people to events, maybe even volunteer at a soup kitchen… on Christmas Eve.
But when the rubber hits the road, and especially on Christmas Day, how many of us actually open our lives and our homes to the broken, the lonely, the ‘alien and stranger’ in our midst? How many of us visit the nursing homes or prisons? How much of our energy and time in December is spent shopping for thoughtful gifts for our family members and sourcing the perfect ham for the family lunch?
The more I think about Paula, and the more I think about Christmas, and the more I think about the gospel… the more I feel we followers of Jesus might need to seriously rethink some aspects of the way we celebrate His birth. Afterall, we can celebrate and enjoy family on many different occasions throughout the year – they needn’t feel neglected if we use Christmas Day differently, since it is, afterall, CHRISTmas, that is “Christ’s Day”! And if they are offended… well, I am reminded of those awkward and rather disturbing words of Jesus in Matthew 10:
34“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35“For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; 36and A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD.
What?! Doesn’t this contradict the message of Christmas, Peace on Earth and all that? And isn’t Jesus all about love? It doesn’t make sense. I think the following verses help to explain:
37“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.3 8“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39“He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
There we go: He is talking about idolatry. Making a good thing into a ‘god thing’; putting something else in first place in our lives, on the throne that belongs only to King Jesus. Our problem is not that we love other people, but that we do not love Him enough.
So the question is, what would our Christmas festivities look like with the Lord Jesus in His rightful place, commanding our first allegiance and our highest love? How can we celebrate the birth of Christ in a way that clearly proclaims, in word and deed, who He is and why he came? I don’t know! But I have a feeling it involves going out of our way to privilege the outsider, and to help people like Paula get their share of the Christmas joy.