Christians around the world observe and celebrate 25 December as the birthday of Jesus whom we acclaim as God and who became flesh in the first century of this era and continues to live in the world and the church as a compassionate, loving and caring character. Incarnation is the word used to describe the God-in-flesh nature of this God and which some theologians or Christian thinkers describe as ‘the scandal of particularity,’ in that, while for most religions God is viewed as distant and far removed from human reality and experiences, followers of Jesus, known as disciples, increase activities such as worship and outreach as signs and expressions of faithfulness, commitment and dedicated to the God who became human.
Of the total number of Christians, globally, there are some 85 million who identify as Anglicans. The majority of this number are on the African continent, especially in southern Africa and they have the distinction of having members who go back to the very early days of the foundation of the Jesus Movement. Along with these are Christians in Palestine and in Israel, in particular, who at this time of year have the privilege of hosting thousands of people from around the world who travel to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. This is done to relive the drama and mystery of a birth described as miraculous seeing that Mary became pregnant, not by natural means but by a supernatural movement of God. Of course, this is unreasonable for those who do not share this perspective of faith but is very fitting for those who accept that with God all things are possible, and after all, they repose their faith in a creator God who “called” all things into existence.
Since God is in the flesh, Christians are not simply caught up in speculative discourse about whether Jesus was born on 25 December, which is quite unlikely since its winter and unlikely that shepherds would be out in the field but rather basking in the beauty of nature and human nature, in particular. For this reason, extra effort is put into enhancing outreach to the less fortunate whether it’s the homeless, orphans, widows, the lonely, sad, depressed, or hopeless. There is also extra sensitivity towards those who find the season especially difficult as they remember loved ones who have died, or they feel out-of-sorts as the shortened days and long nights and the extended periods of darkness often drive them into deeper depression. These persons are especially remembered at a time when Christians are accused of pagan worship. This is due to the historical link with Saturnalia or the celebration of the sun with roots going back to the time of the first Christmas celebration.
There is no denying the fact that Christians probably chose this time of year to highlight that, while others are celebrating the sun in Rome or Saturnalia, people of faith are celebrating the Son of God who became human and who was present at the beginning of time when the sun was created. This is not to take away from the celebration of Saturnalia but, rather, to give Christians who are converted to the faith another option for a celebratory occasion to replace their former life. It is like Christians in Jamaica having the option to go to Church on Easter Day as against attending carnival around that time of year. Of course, this is not to take away from those who choose carnival and not Church as people are free to make the choices which they feel best suit their character and nature.
Nonetheless, for many Christians, this time of year is characterized by lights with the decorating and lighting of the Christmas tree from as early as the 13 December, the Feast of St Lucy, or the celebration of light through a life of total surrender or dedication to God. Mass or Holy Communion on Christmas Eve, when the faithful gather in churches anywhere from 6:00 pm to midnight to usher in the celebration which last for not one but 12 days and from which the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night takes its name. Early on the 25th, those who did not make it to midnight mass do so early in the morning and then return home to open presents and then look forward to a hefty breakfast and a sumptuous lunch or dinner with family and friends. On Boxing Day, some attend mass in the early morning and then proceed to share gifts with the less fortunate. This is when care packages are shared with the less fortunate if this was not already done prior to 25 December.
In the twelve days of Christmas, we commemorate St Stephen, the first martyr who died as a result of his faith and was tragically stoned to death. Nonetheless, he had the courage to forgive his murderers as a sign of compassion and love (Acts 7:60). On the 27th the faithfulness and dedication of St John the Evangelist is recalled as he too emphasizes the message of love for each other. Sadly, on the 28th we recall the Holy Innocents, that is, children two years old and younger killed by a despotic Herod who wanted to eliminate the Baby Jesus out of jealousy for power and prestige. The 29th is a time to commemorate Thomas Beckett a twelvth century Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by another despot, King Henry II, since the Archbishop did not support reviewing the powers of the Pope in Britain. The Holy Family is commemorated on the 30th to recall finding Jesus in the temple and highlighting normal anxiety of parents for children. On 5 January, the occasion of the circumcision or naming of Jesus is observed and whereas the occasion was known as the purification of the Blessed Virgin and later renamed circumcision of Jesus, it is now observed as The Holy Name of Jesus which is eight days after Jesus’ birth. Finally, the Epiphany is observed on 6 January and is observed as Jesus proclaimed as a light to the nations, similar to the light symbolized by the Christmas tree, a parallel to Saturnalia and the Messiah anticipated by the Jewish community. Epiphany is also celebrated as Christmas in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Christians, therefore, celebrate Christmas as the occasion to mark the birth of Jesus while at the same time observing the divinity of Jesus not as though it depends on the factual nature of a birth on the 25th of December but rather an occasion to celebrate the ‘scandal of particularity,’ that is, God is now in the flesh. Hence there is no need to go beyond ourselves to relate to, worship or engage in conversation with God from a distance but with a conscious realization that God is with us ‘closer than a brother,’ requires no mediator and is as close to us as a breath. This closeness inspires us to worship Jesus and love and care for others this time of year, especially the most vulnerable.
Rev. Garth Minott is the Bishop of Kingston.