A Christmas Message Based on the Prophetic Lyrics of Mr Roy Wood
Christmas is not what it used to be. At least that is the impression I have after reminiscing for a few moments with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The food is just as good, I admit; and the drink, of course, is vastly superior. But the music has clearly gone into decline. No doubt this year Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga will inflict some synthetic tripe upon the world in a last minute attempt to lower the average quality of the overall cultural contribution of 2011. When I was small, we had the likes of Noddy Holder and Slade singing 'Merry Christmas Everybody', Mud with their own version of 'It'll Be Lonely this Christmas' and, of course, the excessively hirsute glam rocker, Roy Wood, with his 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.' Frankly, if Christmas now means extra Kardashian reality programs on the TV, even the ever-optimistic Roy Wood might want to reconsider exactly what it is for which he is asking in the song.
In fact, of course, there is a case to be made that Christmas, if not coming quite everyday in our culture, has certainly spread its influence throughout the year. When I was a child, another hallmark of the festive season was the appearance on television of adverts (that's 'commercials' in the US) for toys. These typically started around October and vanished by the start of January. At that point, business returned to normal on the commercial channels: adverts for lawnmowers, men's hair dye, Cinzano and various detergents. The window for toy adverts was relatively narrow and seasonally specific.
Today's world is very different. The astute television viewer may well have noticed in recent years that adverts for toys go on all year round, a point which is surely of some cultural significance. No longer is the toy market focused on Christmas; it is assumed that money will be spent on such things throughout the calendar year. Possibly even more important, however, is the fact that these toy adverts are often targeted more at adults than at children. Whether it is giant TV sets, expensive cars or slick computers, the toys these days have an adult price tag and an adult market.
This Christmas-creep cultural shift seems to indicate three things about society: we have more money (or at least more access to credit) than was the case thirty years ago; we are increasingly obsessed with `treating ourselves'; and the boundary between adulthood and childhood has become blurred to the point of near erasure. It is the latter point which is most important.
Anyone who has ever had children will know that it is a most Augustinian experience. Few if any parents of a three month old find Pelagius and his ilk to be particularly persuasive on the matter of human nature. Indeed, it is very hard not to believe in original sin at 3 am in the wee small hours when your child is screaming his lungs out and there is nothing - no food, no toy, no activity, no person - which can stop him. Babies are the most brutally honest of human beings: it really is all about them; and they make it very clear that they both believe that and practice such with a vengeance.
Infants are, in fact, the very embodiment of self-love. They want their immediate needs satisfied and they care nothing for anything or anybody else. Arguably, the process of growing up, of education in the broadest (and oldest) sense of the word, is the means by which the child comes to curb this utter self-centredness through its need to be part of wider society.
This all makes the apparent regression to childhood by the adult population a rather worrying phenomenon. The prevalence throughout the year of advertisements for toys marketed to grown-ups seems to witness to precisely this trend and should be a cause of some concern. I am typically not of the `it was so much better in the old days' school which always sees the past in a nostalgic light and the present as being a sorry shadow of lost greatness. Yet I believe there has been a shift: my grandfather worked in a factory but never complained about the harshness and the tedium of the work because he found his meaning in providing for his family. He was not a Christian but the focus of his life was not himself but his wife and children. Sure; his love terminated on the creature, not the creator, and so was still wrong; but it was at least turned somewhat outward.
By way of contrast to the priorities of my grandfather, the rise of the toy-and treat-obsessed society which wants the materialism of Christmas every day of the year reflect a society where individuals increasingly find their value and meaning in what they can do - or, more often, buy - for themselves. This love is directed inwards to the gratification of the self. That is where value and meaning are found. That is where the restless heart is supposed to find rest, although the spread of Christmas to the whole of the year would indicate that such rest has proved elusive. In fact, the ubiquity of the Christmas spirit arguably witnesses to the extension of the Augustinian childhood of unrestricted, unapologetic and frequently unchecked self-love to the whole length of life and the very fabric of society. To adapt the Roy Wood lyric, we really do wish it could be Christmas everyday.
The irony of the Christian Christmas is that the Christ child comes not because of any need of his own or any desire to fulfill a selfish or inwardly directed want; this child, the child in the manger, considers it not robbery to be equal with God and yet humbles himself by taking the form of a servant in order to be obedient even to death on the cross. All of this is done for those who not only did not deserve it but who despise the very thought of grace. For the strong and the self-sufficient to be shown their need and to be delivered therefrom by a nobody who begins life in a manger and ends it on a cross is a profound insult to everything we hold dear. The world looks on - now as then - and see this all as so much childishness; the tragedy, of course, is that it is the unsuspecting world which is truly childish.
I wonder if it is coincidence that at the very moment when childhood - or, perhaps better, childishness - seems to be permeating society, atheism and the militant rejection of Christianity are becoming so trendy. There is nothing more childish than the repudiation of parental authority by those who are still dependent upon their parents for everything from food to shelter to clothing. As the fourteen year old kid with the body-piercing and mohawk is still utterly dependent on his parents' money to buy him the torn jeans and the tee-shirt with the anti-authoritarian slogan spray painted on it, so those dependent upon God for their lives take a perverse and childish pleasure in denying his claims over their lives. And as the fourteen year old punk looks like a serious adult role model to the twelve year old wannabe, so the angry atheism that sells so many books today looks like true maturity to the world at large. Yet it does not change the fact that, as Romans 1 tells us, such is really a move not towards maturity but towards a fundamental denial of our humanity.
This should put our need to engage with atheists in perspective. Atheists do appear scary to the church, as the foul-mouthed kid with the leather jacket and the tatttoo might well be an intimidating and alien presence in my neighbourhood late at night; but all the expletives in the world do not change the fact that he is just a kid with attitude, not a serious challenge to my safety or well-being. Yes, we sometimes need to refute atheists in the same way we need to check unruly teenagers; but we should not waste too much time on such matters. The church also has adult work to be doing and dealing with kids should not distract us from that. Atheists come and atheists go; as far as I can tell, Mt. 16:18 continues to prove to be true.
The message of Christmas is the message of the cross: all our human conceptions are turned upside down; greatness is found in a manger and on a cross; the most powerful autonomous aspirations of men and women are in comparison to the baby Jesus but childish acts of meaningless defiance; atheism pretends to maturity; but from the perspective of the Bethlehem stable, it is but so much juvenile posturing
Like Roy Wood, I wish it could be Christmas everyday. I regret that that has come to mean the universal extrapoloation of childishness to every area of life; but I rejoice that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. On that day, it will truly be Christmas everyday.
Preaching through John's gospel, I have paused to meditate upon the person and work of John the Baptist. Here was one who came as a "witness, to bear witness about the Light" (Jn 1:6). Consistently (1:7, 14, 20) we are told that the Baptist was not the Light but a witness to the Light.
One of the amusing things I have noticed in the last twelve months or so has been a shift in the rhetoric used by members of the older generation (40 plus) surrounding what twenty- and thirty-somethings will believe. Five years...