Once more our senses are being bombarded with manufactured images and messages of totally irrelevant and mostly unneeded seasonal tat. It is nigh impossible to escape the Christmas kitsch which pushes us to value ourselves by what we buy, never mind the costs of consumerism to other people, other places or the planet. As long as the tills keep ringing, we can forget the bells.
So what is really at the heart of the Christmas story? In one word – ‘hospitality’.
We have an unmarried pregnant woman, marginalised in her own culture in an army-occupied land which is harsh and unforgiving. She is journeying and technically homeless, drawn away from her family for political purposes and sleeping rough in a distant town with little means of support.
She is herself bitter (mara = bitterness) and uncertain. News of the birth of her then unknown babe becomes a priority message to sheepherding travellers (not land-owners!) guarding their livelihoods, and to astronomers mixed up in some dodgy journeying. This is the context not so much of powerful rulers but of marginalised peasants. Children were often left on the streets to die (or worse) and finding bread to survive was a daily struggle. Debts were high, institutions corrupt and women treated more lowly than slaves.
Yet what happens is astounding. What should have been an inhospitable environment of death and desecration, instead cradles new life and new hope. The meagre becomes the miraculous. The unassuming becomes the unimaginable.
In biblical terms, the Christmas narratives repeat the pattern of the stories of the beginning expressed in the first two books of Genesis. A toxic and unformed universe gives birth to the human race through the process of evolution. The building blocks of sky, light, water, minerals and vegetation lead to the arrival of animals, and then human life in the form of Adam (adamah = person from the earth). Whereas the nativity stories culminate in the coming of another human (second Adam) who comes to be seen as completing the work of the first.
Central to both, though often overlooked, is the reality that the natural world, the very Earth herself, offers hospitality to human birth and well-being. The planet which is seen as part of God’s creation is open to the birthing of God. The words Nature and Nativity come from the same root – natus or born.
In spite of the multiple distractions of consumerist noise throughout Advent, may we remember that without the hospitality that the Earth affords there would be no humanity and no Christmas!
Or, in other words, we require our earthly lives to share the power of love. We celebrate the gift of life on and through the Earth. It is the Earth that connects us with each other and (for some of us) with God. Bishop David Jenkins used to remind us that “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the religions”. Matter matters because that is how love and justice, kindness and peace, faith and hope are incarnated or made real.
Hospitality or offering welcome is the basis for opening our lives to the vulnerable, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and sharing resources more equitably with all.
For people of faith Christmas is about the earthing of God’s love. So may we walk more lightly in our common home lest her capacity to give birth to future generations is destroyed through our own short-sightedness.
All best wishes – Martyn