CHRISTMAS won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
Thus begins the classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The four March sisters, including second oldest Jo, are facing a bleak Christmas without their father, who is away with the army in the American Civil War, and the possibility of not getting any presents due to their straitened circumstances.
As the chapter unfolds, the girls decide that rather than grumble, they will buy gifts for their mother with their meagre allowance. And when Christmas morning comes, they prepare a simple celebration to surprise their mother but end up giving their breakfast meal to a starving family of six children who had come round begging for help.
Their own festivities after that seem more meaningful as they present gifts to their mother and put on a play in the evening.
As this story indicates, Christmas isn’t about all about amassing presents, feasting and generally having a good time. Yes, all of this might be part of the festivities but it’s certainly not the reason for the season.
Yet even among Christians it’s easy to get caught up in the consumerism that surrounds Christmas nowadays. We are bombarded daily by advertising campaigns for everything from festive spreads to gift guides, must-have fashions and decorations which promise the “magic” and joy of the holiday season that we lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas.
And so it was most timely and welcome to hear Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok’s message at the joint Christmas service organised by the Association of Churches in Sarawak (ACS) on Thursday night.
Bolly, who is ACS chairman and Archbishop of the Province of the Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, said Christmas was about the birth of a Saviour for mankind which had been foretold and fulfilled in the Bible.
“If our Scriptures are telling the truth, then it is the greatest news that the planet has ever heard. But astonishingly, the tragedy is that as the environment was hostile then, so it is now in our generation.
“If we are honest, we know how difficult it is to give room to Jesus to be born in the crowded inn of our lives and hearts,” he said, referring to the story of Jesus Christ’s birth in a stable because there was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph.
The Christmas story is a familiar one to many Christians, but Bolly gave it a fresh perspective in recounting how some shepherds were the first to hear the wonderful news of the Saviour’s birth as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
“We should not be mistaken that the shepherds were oblivious to the politics of the day. They were troubled by political oppression and injustice from the Roman colonisers. I can imagine that in the face of such injustice, their discontent would have been mounting and anger boiling in their hearts at their own helplessness.
“But God intervened with the startling proclamation that a Saviour was born for them. The shepherds did not dismiss this encounter. Instead it moved them to act, to go and see the thing that had happened, and it transformed them into the first evangelists of the church.
“We too have our own burdens and concerns. It could be harsh political realities, or a constant struggle to make ends meet, or relationship issues. For some the situation could be so hopeless that there is nothing left to live for.
“Yet Christmas talks about a Saviour born, God with us. Because God is present in the world, there is no person so lonely, no place so forsaken, that God cannot offer forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and mercy, healing and hope.”
God’s presence in the world, Bolly went on, meant that nothing could separate us from his love.
“Let us rise from our present concerns, fears and burdens and, like the shepherds, be moved to go and see the wonderful thing that has happened,” he concluded.
Truly his words remind us that Christmas is about celebrating the Saviour’s birth, and that the reason why we have hope and joy is because God is with us. As so many carols tell us, Christ’s birth brings peace on earth and goodwill to men.
It’s not the presents, nor the food and festivities, but God’s presence that makes Christmas what it is.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.