Thursday, 18 December 2008

Christmas 2008 and the ongoing battle between Hedonism and Humility


And, of course, hedonism usually wins by a clear margin for 99.999% of us.In the Old Testament, God describes the Israelites as a 'stiff-necked and stubborn people' so many times that he's obviously making an important point. And I think it's true for all of us. Now, God doesn't actually use the term self-centred to describe us but I do, because the truth is that most of us are self-centred, self-serving, consumed with our own needs to a greater or lesser degree (apart from people like Mother Theresa, although I bet that she occasionally put herself first).

Christians are reminded time and time again that they need to 'die to self'and to do things God's way rather than our own, but it's a very difficult thing to do because, let's face it, it's human nature. I've been attempting for a number of years to 'die to self' and I haven't even chipped away at the tip of the iceberg. I describe myself as a 'work in progress', just like most of my writing .

But before you think I'm wearing a sack-cloth, smothered in ashes and in a state of fasting as atonement, let me say that I'm most certainly not. I'm just acknowledging that, and I'm repeating myself here, it's human nature to put ourselves first far more than is good for us or the rest of mankind, and I'm the first to put my hand up and declare: 'Yes, I'm like that.' We all are. And that's one of the reasons why Jesus Christ was born in the first place - to save us from ourselves because we're not very good at doing it for ourselves.

For anyone who has read all of my blogs, it's no secret that I have been a Christian for nearly twenty years and am eternally grateful to be so.

So, as a Christian, this is supposed to be 'my time of the year' and yet I just haven't been feeling excited about the Christmas Story during the long, slow, monotonous build up to Xmas, which started in SEPTEMBER !!!, until I heard the interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this morning's BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Not only did I agree with what he had to say about the world's financial crisis but also it got me really thinking about the Xmas story.

Basically, what he argued was that this financial crisis is a real opportunity for us to re-examine the way we live. He maintained that the Government's borrow and spend solution to our financial problems was not the right way to tackle the situation. We should think, instead, of what we need rather than than what we want and that this over-reliance on financial wealth, consumerism and speculation using the Stock Exchange ultimately does not aid a healthy, caring society. When pressed on this for details, he laughingly said that for him to give precise financial advice was 'suicidal madness', which I thought was a great expression to use, but the suggestion was there that there is an alternative and far more rewarding approach. And I think that that's true: spending our way out of financial recession is just repeating the same materialist mistakes which got us into this mess in the first place.

Clive James repeated this idea in his hilarious ten minute slot on Sunday on Radio 4 at 8.50: 'A Point of View'. Making and selling goods is one thing, but making money just from money (note this, all you bankers, hedge fund managers etc,) can only lead to disaster. (That was the serious bit of his talk after nearly ten minutes describing how difficult he found wrapping presents, bribes to a daughter to do it for him, and his delight in finding a service that actually wraps presents badly to avoid suspicion from family members, well used to his inept wrapping skills using not quite enough paper or ribbon.)

And, and this is my thought now, borrowing for material goods when we can't afford them is poor budgeting. But unfortunately, in introducing student loans some time ago, the Government has given a clear message to young people that it's okay to go into debt. Ugh???

And this borrowing, spending culture leads onto my Christmas theme. I've felt for a long time now that we certainly are too hedonistic when it comes to Xmas. In fact, it can turn your stomach seeing trolleys piled high with food at super-markets and hear just how much parents spend on their children. I think we have spoilt our children, me included, to think that they can have everything they want. And often this means that we just give them what they want, without them having to do anything, which, in turn, means that they don't learn how to save and plan and actually earn what it is that they want. And the Archbishop of Canterbury would say, anyway, that 'what they want' should be replaced by 'what they need.'

Of course, there are many countries where large swathes of the population don't even have what they need, making the hedonism of Xmas even more unpalatable, and this highlights the enormous imbalances between the western world and third world countries. Although there is poverty in the UK, it pales into insignificance when compared to a country such as Zimbabwe, which is an international disgrace.

Robert Mugabe, a defeated politician who clings onto an illegal presidency, seems to have no care for his people, who are dying at alarming rates because of lack of food and clean water, cholera and other diseases whilst most of the hospitals and clinics are now closed. This man, who struts around like a peacock, living a life of luxury, and using the race card in a way that reveals that it is he who is the racist, is probably the best example in the world of the disastrous effects of hedonism.

Why don't the African countries in the area open their eyes to the fact that he is no longer the great saviour of Zimbabwe, the freedom fighter who liberated his people, but is now a cruel dictator, guilty of war crimes against his own people? South Africa et al should do what is right and proper and apply pressure on him to leave office peacefully because he won't take any notice of 'colonial white people'. Certainly, the longer they condone his presidency, then the greater is their betrayal of the African people.

And so, from a false saviour to the real thing: the Christmas Story.

Jesus, in fact, was probably not born on December 25th or even at this time of the year. (Most recent thinking is that he was probably born in April and that The Star of Bethlehem was actually Jupiter). Christians just hijacked the pagan celebration of the sun in December. As the days of winter became darker, the pagans were fearful that their sun-god had deserted them and so they devised celebrations to woo him back, which actually occurred naturally near the end of December. I don't mind Christians hijacking celebrations and making them into their own or reclaiming symbols like rainbows and angels, which have been hijacked by new agers, but it means that Xmas is a very artificial celebration, rather like the Queen's official birthday. So, trying to conjure up some special magic of the wonder of Christ's birth on Christmas Day, is something I find difficult to do.

However, the story of Christ's birth is a brilliant one - any writer would give their right arm to re-create a story as good as this one, with so many twists and turns, a seemingly tragic defeat and then, three days later, a wonderful victory. But if you unravel the details, then a different picture comes into focus, far starker than the simple nativity scene that we present to children. I'm not knocking that at all - I love to see the manger scene - the crib, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men. It's stunning and beautiful and totally right as a clear and simple representation. Forget the fact that the Wise men came much later, probably two years later. The crib scene is symbolic of it all.

But, for us adults, and, more pertinently, the present financial crisis, if we examine the early life of Jesus Christ, it's not the totally happy or comfortable scene that represents it. Because:-

a. Jesus's parents were unmarried at the time of his 'conception', which was more than sufficient reason for Joseph to ditch Mary, since she was supposed to be a virgin. He must have been a very special man to accept the excuse that the pregnancy of his fiance had been the result of Divine Intervention.

b. They were a very poor, very humble family - not the background that you would expect for a King.

c. They had to travel away from their home to Bethlehem for the consensus whilst Mary was heavily pregnant, risky with modern transport and even more so on a donkey on rough, unmade roads.

d. There was no comfortable room for them to stay in but a basic stable, which would have been uncomfortable, unhygienic and very smelly.

e. News of Jesus's birth enraged King Herod so much that he ordered the wholesale slaughter of all infants, thinking that this would include his rival, not realising that it was quite a different King who had been born; a King who had not come to rule but to sacrifice himself. It was only Joseph's dream warning of this slaughter, which prompted the family to escape to Egypt.

f. This meant that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees in a foreign country.

I had hoped to have this blog finished well before Xmas but I've had flu and regretfully drifted into a total sleep-do-nothing fest. It's now Boxing Day and this is the first time I'm even wanted to go on my computer. So, I hope that what I write now makes sense. (If it ever did when sans-flu.)

g. Once back in Nazareth, Joseph died at some stage, we don't know when, so Mary was head of a one-parent family.

Now, what I find so relevant about the early experiences of Jesus Christ, was that they were both tough and dangerous. The joyful manger scene was short lived, to be replaced by persecution and difficulties. It's what I call 'the bitter-sweet' nature of life. Jesus had to live with this tension all his life and certainly at his death. But yet, he still enjoyed life and that's a wonderful example to us all and why I'm not wearing sack-cloth etc.

For we live with this tension, too. There will always be problems in our lives, no matter who we are, whether we are rich, well-off or poor, no matter what our age, gender, religion, culture or sexual persuasion. And even if everything is hunky-dory most of the time, then knowing that people are being killed, starved, enslaved and devastated by man-made atrocities or natural disasters in many parts of the world, leave an uneasy feeling for most people. The secret is to find the balance, like Jesus, within this 'bitter-sweet' existence: living as fulfilling a life as possible without being complacent and to do what we can to help as much as we can. We are certainly not asked to carry the world's problems on our shoulders, thankfully. That's Jesus's job.

And this 'bitter-sweet' tension is no more keenly felt on Xmas Day in this country. It should be a day of celebration, not only for the birth of Jesus but also enjoying the closeness of not just family and friends but also in acknowledging strangers to whom it is perfectly acceptable to greet on Xmas Day. But for many, Xmas Day is a nightmare to be endured: the pressures of providing too much food, too much drink, too many presents, everything being perfect, takes its toll on all those who are hosting the day (I should know - I've done it often enough. Xmas lunch is notoriously the most difficult meal to prepare because there's so much of it, all needing different cooking times. Luckily, John became the master of such planning, with a military precision that is a sight to behold, but even so, whilst your guests are getting merrier and louder, you, the providers, are reduced to semi-exhaustion in a hot, steamy kitchen.)

And then there are the family tensions, which often come to the surface with the emotion of the occasion and the surplus of alcohol; people who don't have family nearby or have no family at all; those who are homeless, in debt, have lost their job or about to lose their job, and so on and so on.

I guess that I'm making two points here. Firstly, the Xmas we celebrate in this country often has little to do with the birth of Jesus and, secondly, it is dreaded by many people. So, something's wrong. Big time.

And we seem to have forgotten that Jesus had a particular affinity to all those scorned by society: the poor, prostitutes, those who are ill, the homeless, those whose lives are in danger. And during the three years of his ministry, Jesus accepted and enjoyed the company of society's outcasts as well as those with money. In other words, not only did he come for everyone, rich and poor alike, but he was especially drawn to the unfortunates in life and although he did, on occasions, say: 'Go and sin no more' he often did not.

He came, as he said,'to save not to condemn'. And I'm just wondering here just how much the Christian Churches or Western Governments totally embrace that kind of message. My own church does a lot of work abroad, particularly in Africa, so I know that good work is being done. And St Martins in The Field, that famous church in the centre of London, does incredible work helping homeless people learn new skills, finding accommodation and jobs, and hopefully, will have raised a significant amount of cash after their Xmas appeal on Radio 4.

I acknowledge that sometimes church leaders speak out about Zimbabwe, Iraq, the direction the government is taking in this financial crisis etc. But, only too often we hear the condemning, dogmatic side of the church. Look no further than the Pope's recent condemnation of homosexuality, likening it to the destruction of our world due to global warming. These are people he is talking about!

I certainly don't remember, anywhere in the gospels, Jesus condemning whole swaves of people to eternal damnation because they were gay. Perhaps I missed that part and someone from the clergy could leave a message on this blog, quoting the relevant chapter and verse. Or the role of women in the church. I think that it's essential to re-examine our interpretations of the Bible from time to time to sort out what is valid today and what reflects cultural thinking of the time. For example, slaves were accepted in Jesus's era but we now legislate against it because slavery is disgusting. That is an abomination, I would say

So, back to Xmas. I'm definitely not saying that we shouldn't have fun. Jesus loved having a good time, eating and drinking and enjoying the company of friends and so should we. And giving and receiving presents at Xmas time can be a lot of fun but what I'm suggesting here is that we should tone down the expense and the hype and remember all those who are far worse off than us and actually do something positive. For example, Oxfam have a scheme called Unwrapped ( where you can donate animals, clean water supplies etc to families in third world countries and I'm going to do that next year and probably in January. Why wait until Xmas 2009?

And perhaps this looming recession will make us think about what is really important in life and that helping each other is far more rewarding than anything else. And we're already seeing it: electricians forsaking their own Christmas's to restore power to homes in Lancashire. This economic crisis is yet another 'wake up call', like 9/11, 7/11, the Boxing Day tsunami. Are we going to listen to it ? I really, really hope so.

And so to our Xmas here. I had originally intended to write about my childhood memories of Xmas, which give me great pleasure, and not this serious 'essay' about hedonism versus humility, but I guess my own 'bitter-sweet' thoughts on Xmas just hijacked the blog and I'm glad that it did so because, in my own mind, I've put a number of things into perspective.

Since I was 15, Xmas has always been a difficult occasion for me because my dad died just after Xmas in 1964 and since then, some pretty horrible things have happened to me around this time of the year. So, like it or not, with the excitement and plans come some pretty horrible memories. Some people can switch off from these things but I can't.

However, I have had some great Xmases in between the awful ones and this year has been notably enjoyable despite all our plans going array.

Morocco was not an option this year (now that's a fantastic way to spend Xmas) so originally John and I were going to have a very low-key day, taking the dog for a walk on Sandbanks beach and chilling out in the evening. But on a recent visit to Glastonbury to see John's new-found sister, she invited us to her Xmas do and we jumped at the chance. I adore everyone in our new found family - they are such amazing fun - and the thought of a large family Xmas with people I actually like gave me much pleasurable anticipation.

We booked a room for the night in a nearby hotel and stocked up on goodies for the meal - Xmas pud, creams, chocolates, cheeses and wine. And then I got this bl.... flu and was confined to bed. So we decided that John would go to the party because he had half the meal and I would be sleeping anyway and I stayed at home. I've never, ever spent Xmas alone before and to be honest, I really enjoyed myself. I slept all the day (getting up briefly to watch the Queen's speech) and then rolled out of bed to have a tele fest: Doctor Who, EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing, Wallace and Gromit, and the fabulous Royal Family Xmas dinner, where, of course, everything went wrong but nobody minded and they ending up with a sing-song.

As someone famous said (was it Woody Allen or John Lennon?): life is what happens while you're busy making plans.

But the most enjoyable part of Xmas was listening, snuggled up in bed, of course, to the King's College Festival of Carols on Radio 4 at 3pm on Xmas Eve. And then the magic of Xmas and the miracle of Jesus flooded the room and I felt very, very content

It is now New Year's Day (I don't think I've ever spent so long on one blog but what the heck. I've enjoyed writing it and perhaps I've banished those nasty Xmas ghosts. And I'm certainly looking forward to next Xmas because I've definitely not had enough turkey.

So, all that's left to wish you all a Happy New Year and may you feel a sense of peace and the strength to tackle whatever is ahead.

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