The drought hangs on and bushfires rage while a sluggish economy discourages enterprise. Little wonder if the young lose confidence in the future and the older can no longer trust what was tried and true in their familiar past. In times of conflict and upheaval, it seems that neither future plans nor past experience has much connection with reality. There is a general feeling of being at a loss. No doubt, many experiences these times as an intimate defeat. And mockery too. In the big stores, there are counters displaying an extraordinary variety of gadgets and baubles as gifts ‘for those who have everything’. The growing number of those who have less and less cannot but be stung into anger as they consider the grim restrictions of their festive season.
And yet the young buskers are still belting out the old carols on the corner. Christmas is in the air again, and people will still gather around the Crib to celebrate something beyond the dismal limits of the economy. They will try as best they can to give their gifts and send their greetings to family and friends. They will be acting out of deep memory of another economy — that of the heart where generosity is the key and giving is more blessed than receiving or merely having; in which true goodness ifs far closer to the heart than owning things.
Maybe it was once easier to celebrate a merry Christmas when jobs were secure in times of general prosperity, and universities were vying with one another for the talent of youth. Still, it would be an ultimate sadness if we ever let ourselves believe that an economic recession could strike at the very heart of Christmas, or could diminish our deepest humanity in its capacity to give and to share.
For there is no recession in the limitless realm of God’s grace. There is no shrinking in God’s willingness to give. In the deepest meaning of life, there is no unemployment, no useless human being, no undervaluing of our efforts to be good, no drought or sudden fires, no impersonal system that leaves the weakest out, no downgrading of our worth, no forced retirement, restructuring, down-sizing, going offshore, etc.. On that level, in the realisation that we are wonderfully loved by a God who has chosen to be one of us, there is a kind of `holiday loading’ in every living moment.
Of course, we all know that this is no time to romanticise the degrading face of poverty. Our national and Christian aims to ensure that everyone can live in decency and freedom. But there is the other side to it. Many amongst us are learning something about the deepest meaning of Christmas in their experience of need and loss.
In one respect, they are casualties in a vast impersonal process of natural and economic disaster. From another point of view, they are real heroes, thousands of them, who are touching the point where real wisdom begins. Such men and women, parents and children, are finding something that each of us eventually has to find: that possessions mean very little in the end. What really counts is our capacity to receive the great Gift — God’s love in Christ — and our disposition to be, in the stripped simplicity of what we are, true gifts to one another.
For that reason, Christian instinct from the beginning has always looked for the greatest of treasures in the lives of the poor. Those on the underside of our social organisation, those who have least to lose, see things clearly and live with greater spiritual freedom. These are the worthy witnesses, the ones it is really worth listening to.
And it is such as these who knows what Christmas is all about. For the Christmas story is about them. Its elements are clear. The troubling disruption of the lives of Mary and Joseph as they awake to the burden of immense and disturbing mystery; these road-weary travellers were counted as a `statistic’ in the Roman census; the companionship with the Shepherds; the child in the manger; the murderous scheme of Herod; their flight to a foreign country; their cautious return; their final settlement in another town…: not the stuff that success is made of.
However Christian imagination combines or highlights these elements of the Christmas story, the basic emphasis is there: God was born among the lowliest and powerless — and is still to be found with them. It from them that new life breaks forth.
The Wise Men had to learn this lesson. If the wise ones of old looked to the stars for guidance on the ways things were going, the wise ones of today scan, not the night sky, but their computer screens. There they sift, measure and project the dimensions of our human problems.
We might hope that at some point a Christmas `virus’ will get into their computers to jumble all their files and codes, all their graphs and models until they form into the face of an infant lying in a manger. Indeed, the Gospel has it that the Wise ones eventually caught up with the poor shepherds had discovered, and offered their exotic gifts in adoration. Today, the expert and the privileged have a similar duty: to offer their gifts to the one who dwells in the company of the least powerful and most vulnerable in our midst.
It is a more humble way, but always the most hopeful, when Christmas becomes not only the end of a journey but the beginning of a more compassionate return to where we usually work and live. At stake is the most blessed form of our humanity.