Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year. As a Christian it is usually guaranteed that I will at some point hear a sermon on the “true meaning of Christmas”. Reflecting on this, I have often in the past ended up separating the commercial or secular side of Christmas, from the “religious” side. In Britain, this means separating the turkey, the tree, the Santa, the presents, and the holiday (the commercial side), from the “religious side”, celebrating the story of baby Jesus being born in a stable.
Having grown up in a Christian family, the story of Christmas is very familiar to me. As a child I enjoyed (or endured) many nativity plays, where I played a variety of parts including an angel, sheep, shepherd, and even an inn keeper (unfortunately never Mary). I know many carols by heart and have been to countless carol services. Nevertheless, I often find it hard to connect with the “real” or religious meaning of Christmas.
I think the reason for this is that the real meaning of Christmas encompasses aspects of both religion and mainstream festivities. What I love about Christmas is that everything stops. Everyone has a day off. Everyone enjoys giving and receiving presents. Everyone shares with one another. It’s the time of year when it’s good to smile and say ‘Happy Christmas’ to the shop assistant. It’s the time of year when you can actually spend time with your family. It’s the time of “goodwill to all men”. People can share in that, whether they believe that Jesus, God’s son, was born on that day or not.
The carol “Good King Wenceslas” comes to mind. It was my favourite carol as a child. I think that was partly because it was the first one I learnt to play on the guitar, but I am also struck by the last line: “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
Christmas became the time of year when compassion and service came to the forefront of people’s minds. This is found throughout all of the gospels, in which Jesus’ teachings are recorded. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus quotes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”(Luke 4:18-19).
Over the Christmas period charities receive more money than during any other period throughout the year, while people are also more likely to volunteer. It promotes and encourages people to look after others, especially those in need. I think the story of Jesus is the impetus behind this. I believe that God sent his only son, who chose to live humbly, to become human, to serve others, and ultimately to die so that others could live. Jesus to me is the ultimate example of serving others, of teaching us how to love one another as ourselves.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God to earth. Similarly, in Luke 11:20, and Luke 17:21, Jesus claims that “the kingdom of God has come to you” and “the Kingdom of God is within you”. The “Kingdom” that Jesus spoke of will be fully realised in the future when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11.6), after which there will be no more war, conflict or death. However, Jesus also brought this into fruition during his life and through his teachings. Jesus’ deeds and words had an immediate effect: he served the poor; healed the blind and lame; and brought the Kingdom of God to earth. When people have compassion for one another, enough to extend their love even to their enemy, it is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God coming to earth. If we were all to love each other as Jesus said, then we would live in a much more peaceful and just society.
Christmas has become too commercialised, with more emphasis on what presents you get and how much you spend, rather than on family, love and service. The true meaning of Christmas is about learning to have compassion. It is about serving those who have less, at a time of “peace on earth and goodwill to all men.” Everyone, of any faith and none, can play a part in this.
Tzedek and Faiths Act will be recruiting for an exciting and inspirational interfaith campaign programme in London, to take action against the injustice of gender inequality and to tackle global poverty. This programme, called INFACT, is more important than ever given that we live in a society where injustice and inequality are widespread, with 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty. Jesus inspires me to have compassion, and to act to try and prevent this.
Kofi Annan said that, “Until there is gender equality, there can be no sustainable development. It is impossible to realise our goals while discriminating against half the human race.”
Christmas is a time where we are reminded of this, to have compassion for family and also those most in need. Every faith promotes compassion and joined together – they can be the difference they wish to see in the world.
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