Christmas Inside Out
Personally speaking, I find Christmas Day the most uncomfortable day of the year on which to speak. This is because the popular cultural sentiments centred on the manger setting of the adorable infant in Matthew and Luke clash with one of my stranger spiritual experiences. This was a sustained inner sense of feeling turned “inside out” which caused me to reconsider how I viewed the whole direction of the life of God. It is John’s account of the coming of Jesus that most directly challenges a manger spirituality centred on personal comfort and connects the cradle with the cross in a way that answer this accusation by a secular journalist in The Australian; “For the believer, the ultimate implication of the Christian story, preached at its most comforting at Christmas, is that they should become Christ. The figure of the baby who receives the reverence of the shepherds, the celebration of angels and the gifts of kings is an easier prospect than the “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” desolation of dying on a cross” (Peter Craven, The Australian 19-20/12/15 p.21).
When John begins his account of the Incarnation with “the Word was with/present to God”; he describes an other-directed dynamic in the life of Christ whose power is central to understanding the meaning of Christmas (John 1:1). In moving on to explain that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1: 14) John outlines an arc that moves the life of Christ from the glory of God into human weakness. In audaciously attaching the theologically loaded word “flesh” to the infant Jesus John reminds us of the sort of frailty Christ took on in becoming human. In first century Palestine infant mortality rates were probably around 30%; not a time you would want your children or grandchildren to be born! In entering our world Jesus descended from the bliss of heaven into a realm of decay, despair and death (Rom 8:20-22; Phil 2:6-8). The eternal God turned himself inside out in the coming of his Son for all to see; Jesus moved from an insider’s world to an outsider’s world.
Insiders and Outsiders
Christmas is the time when it is most tragically clear that communities are made up of insiders and outsiders. Today about 2000 needy people will enjoy the Mission Australia Lunch in the Park, but tomorrow these folk will be outsiders once again. Today there will be “relie- bashes” across the country, but some of the people physically present will be emotionally on the outside. I can recall many experiences of marginalisation; here is one that is contextually appropriate. My first Christmas as an ordained person was made that little bit more enjoyable when I received with the other members of our clergy team an unexpected gift. Next year I noticed that after the midnight service there was only two gifts sitting on the vestry table rather than three, mine was intentionally absent because the “giver” had decided they didn’t like the way I talked about the things of God. Or there was the time in Tonga at an international prayer event when none of the other Australians wanted to talk to me because I didn’t have a well known ministry; I remember praying in a cemetery there, I felt so dark and depressed it was like I was one of the corpses. To place anyone on the outside by neglect or intention is an act of cruelty, and no act of cruelty can ever come from the Spirit that brought Jesus at Christ-mas.
There are inner and outer circles everywhere because lost people cut off from God’s presence crave human acceptance. At high school girls want to be close the “queen-bee” and boys want the star footballer as a mate. Walk into any pub and you will see this dynamic at play with blokes, and in coffee shops between women. Sometimes people will do anything to belong.
In commenting on the drive to be part of an inner circle C.S. Lewis said; “of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Some years later this observation was confirmed in a famous study by Hannah Arendt on Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann joined group after group e.g. YMCA in an effort to fit in with his peers, until finally he joined the SS and became responsible for transporting Jews to the concentration camps.
Jesus taught us “you are equal as brothers as sisters” but it is usual for churches to have an in-circle people want to belong to (Matt 23:8). Donna and I felt we were very close to a couple in one parish, but immediately we left there we never heard from them again. Some of this could be seen as quite “natural”, but anything that creates a circle of insiders versus outsiders has nothing to do with the Spirit that brought Jesus at Christ-mas.
When the “wise men”, who were pagan astrologers after all, came looking for “him who is born king of the Jews” their inner circle understanding led them Jerusalem and the palace of king Herod (Matt 2:2). The structure of the Gospels however contains a totally different wisdom. Apart from the time of his birth the only other place where Jesus is called “king of the Jews” is when he is mocked at the cross (27:11, 37). The Jesus’ story is not a rags to riches story cf. Oprah Winfrey. The Lord is born in poverty and will die condemned and on the extreme outer ring of humanity. This is his deliberate life direction.
In being present with the eternal love of the Father Jesus is the ultimate Insider but to reach out us he must move to the place of the ultimate Outsider. Whilst John says of Jesus, “in him was life” he knows Christ must share our death, whilst Christ is “the light of men” he must be engulfed in our darkness (John 1:4; Matt 27:45). Christ’s obedience to the Father in bringing us back from our selfish alienation from the light and life of God will lead him to the cross. Commenting on the text which The Australian journalist contrasted with the comfort of Christmas, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, one scholar describes Jesus’ experience of death in our place like this, “As the lost one, he was without God, desolate, derelict. He…bears…all the lawlessness…of the world and God hurls him to the place where all lawlessness belongs: to the pit, the black hole; to the infinite, utter, outside; to the place where there is nothing to say but, Why? And Why!”. (D. Macleod). To know that Christ came to be the ultimate outsider in our place brings lasting comfort and renews in our midst the presence of the Spirit which brought Jesus at Christ- mas.
I was sitting at our men’s breakfast last Saturday and asked one of the guys what he was doing for Christmas. He was very adamant that every day of the year was for him a day to celebrate the life of Jesus and why should we let the commercialisation of Christmas dominate his life! Research suggests about 70% of Australians think Christmas is too commercialised but no one knows what to do about it. One respondent even suggested that if it wasn’t for the business aspect of Christmas the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable would have been forgotten by our society by now. 40 years ago I was involved in organising a protest march through the streets of Adelaide headed by the confronting banner, “Jesus was born to die!” I still believe the birth in Bethlehem and the death at Calvary are two sides of the same coin; from start to end Jesus’ life is a sacrifice which has power to break all closed circles and take us back inside the life and light of the Father.
In Jesus there is no outside; as Paul puts it, “For in Christ the whole fullness of God lives in a human body,  and in your union with him you have come to completion” (Col 2:9-10). The humble birth of God’s Son in the smelly darkness of a stable begins the revelation that there is no place too low, too shameful, too sinful, too painful, too “on the outside” for him to come and rescue us from ourselves and the cruelties of this world. This inside to outside dynamic of the life of Christ should radicalise the life of the Church.
Christian Inside Out
The direction Christ comes at Christmas will always lead us to the margins. It is with the poor, broken, depressed, abused, homeless, addicts, elderly, prisoners etc. that Jesus’ presence will be most powerfully found (Matt 25:44-45). This is not a popular direction to take. Today people love the Salvos, but when they started they were opposed by public riots on the streets of England. Some friends of ours working to establish a rehab for women out past Toodyay have been so opposed by the locals that they have earned the reputation as, “The most hated people in Bejording.”
Wanting people to like you and reacting when they don’t is incompatible with the Spirit who brought Jesus to the cradle and the cross. When someone suddenly cut me off from working with them in a ministry close to my heart my natural response to the hurt and marginalisation was to withdraw from their friendship i.e. to marginalise them. The ever wise Donna said, “You can’t abandon X”. That’s what Jesus is like; having come to earth from heaven to enter into our experiences of isolation Jesus never marginalises anyone. This testimony about Christ’s Spirit is the centre of Christ-mas.
Of the many thousands of Australians who attend Christmas services this year comparatively few will lead with their basic life direction permanently changed. But the message of Christ the Word leaving the heavenly presence of God becoming “flesh” and entering into the margins of our humanity has power to turn us inside out so we can turn others from outsiders to insiders in the love of God. This is the Spirit which brought Jesus at Christ-mas and it is produces an ingrained way of life.
I was at a film launch the other day where I knew only two people, when I started a conversation with one of them a few other folk happily joined in. Then I noticed an obese middle aged man standing clumsily by himself; so I walked across to talk with him. In a few minutes he had opened up about the central trauma of his life….and I told him about how in my own isolation and misery I first met Jesus. Whose presence am I feeling when I can’t bear to see someone on the outside? Who is it that moves me to make the effort to cross over from my comfortable personal space to walk across the room and share my testimony with an outsider in order to bring them back to the heart of the Father? It’s the Spirit of Jesus. The One who was present to God in the beginning and became flesh for us can’t bear to see us outside of the experience of his Father’s love. This is why he chose to travel outside of heaven to be born as a fragile human being and to allow himself to be pushed to the ultimate outside of the cross. The circle of God’s love is always open, and it is as we receive the Spirit who brought Jesus at Christmas that we are empowered to bring others into the inner circle of God’s love. We can walk in the way of a culture which gives lip service to Christ but ultimately is about personal comfort, or we can walk in the radical ever-surprising never-disappointing way of Jesus that turns us inside out for God and for the world. Which will we chose?