Monthly Letter

The Vicarage

Christmas films tell us a lot about our cultural values and in particular what our stereotyped celebrations should look like. There’s often the romantic comedy theme of pre-Christmas break-up sadness replaced by new-found love and magic, often found in a fresh relationship. This year this is told through the storyline of A Very Nutty Christmas:

A bakery owner has more cookie orders than she has time to fill this holiday season, and when her boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her, any shred of Christmas joy she had inside immediately disappears. Then, she meets a handsome soldier who may actually be a nutcracker that has come to life. Together, they rediscover the magic of Christmas.

Another typical storyline is the ‘bah humbug ’ plot, typified this Christmas by The Grinch (remade for 2018):

The Grinch and his loyal dog, Max, live a solitary existence inside a cave on Mount Crumpet. His main source of aggravation comes during Christmastime when his neighbours in Whoville celebrate the holidays with a bang. When the Whos decide to make Christmas bigger and brighter, the disgruntled Grinch realizes there is one way to gain peace and quiet. With help from Max, the green grump hatches a scheme to pose as Santa Claus, steal Christmas and silence the Whos' holiday cheer once and for all.

Christmas, for Hollywood at least, is bound up in repairing tattered relationships or in creating new ones. There is often a grumpy ‘outsider ’ who is invariably misunderstood or just wants to be loved. And as relationships form there is a magical quality with everyone involved in the great celebrations.

For some this sickeningly sweet tendency epitomises the commercialisation of Christmas. It’s so far removed from gritty reality that watching it is as irritating as trying to untangle knotted Christmas tree lights. For others there’s a utopian escapism in Christmas films which helps us to forget the reality of a Christmas day spent stressing and arguing with the family and dreading the arrival of Great Aunt Mabel (no offence to anyone named Mabel!).

The story of Jesus born in a stable in Bethlehem has the potential to be seen as a sickly sweet utopian dream as well. We all know the soft-focus scene of a baby asleep in an immaculate straw bed surrounded by perfect, doting parents (who never look tired), with showered and shaved shepherds gathered around (stroking fluffy lambs), and rich, well-dressed wise people leaning on their camels. There’s love and magic in a plot resolved, people coming together, and even the grumpy Grinch-like innkeeper arriving with fresh, scented towels, a gender-neutral blanket and a box of Pampers. The small understated Christmas tree and the faint music playing in the corner betray the scene’s Hollywood-ness.

The Christian Christmas story is quite different; eminently more grounded, gritty, tense and messy. Christmas is magical precisely because it is based in reality, yet miraculously creates relationships in a way Hollywood only dreams of.

In the stable scene, we have the rich and powerful kneeling before the seemingly illegitimate child; the dodgier end of society come in from the fields and brought into contact with the ‘respectables’. We have a man trying to cope with the birth of a child he didn’t father, and a young girl coming to terms with real motherhood in a world where she wasn’t meant to have had a baby. And then we have the baby itself; innocence born into the dirt, softness laid in some cattle fodder, dependence surrounded by uncertainty.

This baby is the glue that brings this unlikely gathering together. Just like in Christmas movies, this baby brings new relationships, restores existing ones and presents new opportunities. Just like in the films, the shadow of Herod who would steal this Christmas gift looms, but is repelled by the brave and urgent actions of the baby’s parents.

By itself, this brings all the elements of a Christmas story together. However, this baby is also God himself come to live among his people: God creating relationships, God humbly accepting human care, and God becoming dependent, vulnerable and fragile. In the stable, the baby gathers the whole spectrum of humanity into new and unexpected relations with each other, and into a wondrous fresh relationship with God.

This is the universal Christmas story bottled into one small stable. All walks of life are gathered into relationship together, all finding their place in God’s presence. This Christmas magic reconciles factions and provides new life possibilities. It welcomes outsiders gathered on the straw.

In our real, non-Hollywood lives we are each invited to gather around the baby this Christmas. We bring all our baggage, knowing that there is a place for each of us in the stable. Through the baby Jesus, our broken relations, feelings of rejection or resentment are reconciled.

The knottiness of a Christmas with Great Aunt Mabel and the commercial festivities are all brought into perspective by a loving God parcelled in a puny, fragile body, come to remake our us and our world.








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