Merry Christmas

Dr George Browning looks into the difference between wishing someone a 'happy holiday' versus a 'happy Christmas'

By George Browning

December 21 2016It is strange how cyclical life can sometimes seem.
Last night was the annual carol service here at Long Beach. A ‘Carol’ was originally a circle or ring song accompanied by dance. The appropriation of this popular folk medium by the Church to convey Christian themes is often attributed to Francis of Assisi 800 years ago.   The association became so complete in the western world that, as a boy, a carol for me became exclusively a song in celebration of the birth of Jesus. The reality today is quite different although not obviously so.  The songs are still sung in the lead up to Christmas. However I have to confess that I now feel very annoyed that community ‘carols’ are most often organised quite independently of the Church and without any real connection to the real meaning of Christmas. Most songs these days are sung in honour of Santa, that great and popular saint of department stores.  What is being circled is not humanity in all its vulnerability, but commerce in all its voraciousness.
In the past, religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, absorbed and transformed pagan festivals associated with seasons of the year, to mark events that celebrate human interaction with the divine; moments that throw light on the journey of human beings towards meaning and fulfilment in every generation.. The Festival of Weeks in Judaism (Shavuot), or Christmas and Easter in Christianity are very good examples. These days the movement has been in the opposite direction, religious festivals have remained, but they have been turned into festivals of commercial opportunity.
To complete the transformation, in some places it is no longer deemed appropriate to wish others a ‘happy Christmas’, but a ‘happy holiday’.
The reason why I find this very sad is not simply the loss of a ‘Christian tradition’, but because an expression of deep meaning for another, indeed for the world,  has been replaced by something ephemeral or trivial.
I am not the only one who feels in my bones that humanity is at a profound and perhaps irreversible turning point in our very short evolutionary history on the planet. Who are we? What is our identity? What is our purpose (if we have one)? There was a time when a circle dance, metaphorically at least, circled the community – all were included – kept safe. Cooperation and inclusion was known to be essential for the well being of all.  As each year passes we seem to be moving further and further away from that place, indeed travelling as fast as we can in the other direction. Capitalism’s advertising has successfully transformed our identity.  We pay grudging allegiance to our belonging and its responsibilities and place most emphasis on our having. So, what we have, or own, and the competition necessary to achieve it, indeed to protect it and exclude it from others, is far more important than sharing, or helping, or giving.
2016 has seen some of the most shocking human events to ever beset the planet. Aleppo, Mosul; floods of asylum seekers; refusal to respond adequately to the threat of global warming; the rise of world leaders who turn cruelty, selfishness and introversion into popular virtue; and the election of a person who lies about everything, has not paid his debts, does not pay tax and maligns those who are different, as the most powerful person in the world. These are some of the marks of 2016 global humanity.
In contrast, the passage of modern time is marked by the birth a little over 2000 years ago of one who marched to a very different beat.  He came to say, that yes you are of immense, even irreplaceable value, but you do not live alone. The irony of blessedness (happiness) is that it resides in humility. Giving has about it much greater joy than receiving. You are accountable: accountable for your brother, sister, neighbour, accountable for the proper stewardship of possessions, and accountable to the one is the source of your very breath.  This message is not a burden, but a joy, the failure to hear it, or more particularly to appropriate it, is to miss out on the depth of life that is possible, life to which all humans are born. Not to hear it or appropriate it is to allow the Aleppos of this world to occur without seemingly to blink an eyelid, or to watch as more and more of the worlds wealth is captured by fewer and fewer people.
Therefore to wish someone a ‘happy Christmas’ is a very different matter to wishing them a ‘happy holiday’.  It is to wish another a depth of experience that brings true happiness. It is also both an expression of hope for the world and a commitment to actions upon which that hope relies. It is to invite another to be out of step with the hordes waiting for the Boxing Day specials and to be in step with all the beautiful people of the world in whom Christ is born afresh, in whom light shines and hope springs eternal. It is to be in step with the one in whom the essential character of humanity resides. Is there a possibility that the spirit of Christmas may last long after the holidays have been forgotten and that 2017 might have about it some of the characteristics of humanity at its best? May the characteristics that came amongst us in the person of Jesus prevail: for our sakes he corralled heaven to earth that earth might ultimately be corralled to heaven.
May I wish you a very blessed Christmas?

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 17 December 2016. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au