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What would Jesus make of our Christmas?

If Jesus were to visit us again, how puzzled he would be with our Christmas. He would be wondering, who is this Santa who seems to be everywhere, a feel-good guy certainly, but wanting us to spend up big.
Yet for all the commercialism of this season, for many people around the world, whatever their belief or religion, Christmas is rather a hopeful celebration of good will among peoples and a time for families and friends to gather, often expressing their love and esteem in gift-giving.
No one knows the date of Jesus’ birth and perhaps it was not important to record it in Jesus’ time. The first record of Christmas being celebrated comes from a mid-fourth century document mentioning that it was celebrated in Rome in 336 AD. After 378 AD the practice was adopted in the Eastern Church.
The date of December 25 marked the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere, a fitting natural link for the new life promised by Jesus.
Some scholars say that the pagan feast of Sol Invictus appears around this time, perhaps as a rival to Christmas by the pagan temples.
We are all familiar with gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, but these can be difficult to understand. They are not fairy stories for children, but Christmas stories for adults expressing the belief of the early Christians about who Jesus was and his message.
The Christmas stories express graphically the divine presence invested in Jesus, something quite startling and even shocking for the pious Jews as well as the first Christians.
It is not surprising that many people today also find the claims of Christians so confronting, even preposterous: that the timeless and mighty Creator should take flesh as a human child in an astonishing commitment to walk with the human race.
Yet for believers, this is what the Incarnation means, God in Jesus expressing his total commitment to the human story and becoming part of it.
Jesus’ life and words thus take on great significance for Christians, demonstrating God’s absolute solidarity with us in our struggle for love and life, and especially when we are afflicted by tragedy and distress.
Few of us can be unmoved by the Christmas hymns and music, evoking childhood memories and our yearning for love in our families, for a more caring world, for peace in our nuclear age, for an end to acute poverty and hunger, and for worldwide action to address global warming and preserve the environmental integrity of the planet with all its life systems.
When we read that Mary and Joseph trudged to Bethlehem for the Roman census, even though Mary was heavily pregnant and gave birth to her baby in the shelter of a cave or stable, we can readily think of women and families in similar dreadful plights, fleeing violence in the Union of Myanmar, Syria, Iraq or Yemen.
The story invites us to concern and practical solidarity with others in such frightful trouble.
St. Matthew recounts that Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the boy child as a threat to his power. How many millions today have fled their homelands because of fear or threats to their lives?
The account invites us to consider how well we in Hong Kong have responded to people seeking shelter with us from such persecution, as the plight of refugees in the city reflects.
The Christmas stories depict the divine presence through the star and the angels in the midst of hardship in the journey and stable. Then there is the horror of the flight from Herod’s murderous attack on the innocent children.
The stories are a prelude to the message of Jesus, that God identifies personally with all people in distress, whatever their belief. Jesus urges and expects us to love and treat others as we would love God.
We can only wonder what a difference it would make to our human wellbeing on our fragile planet if more of us took this message to heart and seriously wrestled with what it meant in practice today.

• Father Bruce Duncan