Around this time of year, more than any other, my thoughts tend to be focused on Jesus. Christmas holds memories so strong that I can almost inhale them and it is easy to be carried back to carol concerts, nativity plays and perhaps most poignantly, Midnight Mass.
Whilst it can be confidently stated that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th—that being a Pagan festival around the Winter Solstice, it is nevertheless the time that culturally his birth is celebrated, and thus it is the time of year that one's thoughts are directed to him.
Jesus Christ was born. He is a historical reality. Roman records show a man named Jesus existed. But how one understands that historical person is framed by one’s theological perspective. He is thought of as a political and religious agitator who attempted to overturn the status quo. He is thought of as the son of God, God made man. He is thought of as a prophet of God. The Qur’an speaks lovingly of Jesus: “God has made me blessed wherever I may be ... so peace was upon me on the day I was born and on the day I will die and on the day I shall be raised to life again.”
As a Christian I thought of him as the son of God. Although to be true, it was his humanity which was always more important to me than his divinity. As a Muslim I think of him as a Prophet of God; born of a virgin through the power of God, as a manifestation of God’s power and not a partner in His Divinity. However, whilst my theological perspective has shifted, my love of Jesus has not.
His story is one which I think all people regardless of their theological background should know and understand, which is why I find this time of year so very, very depressing.
The story of Jesus Christ is becoming lost in the total commercialisation of Christmas. As Christmas products go into the shops earlier, year on year... As specially designed catalogues attempt to sell more and more... As discussions focus on three for the price of two chocolate offers... As Christmas becomes defined by trees, turkey and crackers... As the choice of wrapping paper and the colour coordination of the decorations become crucial... As the office party becomes an opportunity to indulge... As the icon of Christmas shifts from Jesus to Santa Claus... I wonder at the state of the world and find myself lamenting the loss of Christ’s message.
I am not alone in this lament. There are many in the Church who are also pained, and there are those who are trying to get that message heard above the jingle of advertising millions that the commercial giants have. The Churches Advertising Network (CAN) launched its Christmas campaign this year with the face of a small child and the caption “Dec 25. The revolution begins.” This campaign echoes the CAN 1999 campaign with the image of Jesus in the style of Che Guevara over the caption, “Meek. Mild. As if.”
Many Christians find such strategies unacceptable; some describing them sacrilegious. Indeed, the Catholic Church pulled out of CAN after the 1999 Che Guevara campaign; but it does demonstrate the incredibly difficult dilemma that faces those who want to get a spiritual message across but who are up against huge commercial competition.
For me the answer lies in the message itself. If you believe, as I do, that the Prophetic messages hold universal truths that talk to the heart of mankind, then the messages themselves are the strongest selling point. But what was Christ’s message and how is it relevant today?
He certainly was anything but meek and mild, and I have a certain resonance with the Che campaign, although I can understand why some may have been offended. But Christ, like all the Prophets before and after him, was a revolutionary. He upset the status quo, he challenged the authority of the day, he spoke Truth to power. He stood up for the poor, the weak, the oppressed. Isn’t this what his followers, which include Muslims, should do?
And if we are to follow in the footsteps of the Prophetic messages that have been with us constantly and consistently since the beginning of humanity, then we have to stand up and speak for the old and frail, the young and disillusioned, the homeless, the needy and the poor. Indeed we must stand up for all those who have no strength to do so themselves. We must speak for all those who have no voice.
All this is far away from the Christmas lights of our High Streets, but I rather think if Jesus Christ saw all of this he might respond in much the same way as he did inside the Temple when he drove out the merchants and their customers, an act which upset the powers that were. Whatever he would do, I can’t see he would have just stayed silent whilst living in a world with such huge and dangerous inequalities.
From my experiences of lecturing and writing, and simply engaging with people, I believe passionately that people are desperate for a message above and beyond the endless vanity of unrestrained consumption. Somehow we have to provide that message. I believe strongly that it is going to take courage and conviction on the part of those who hold to an understanding of the world beyond mere material form. Ultimately we are going to have to open ourselves up to ridicule in order to achieve a more humane world. But that’s the potent lesson from the stories of all the Prophets.