Christians have got used to the Christ being squeezed out of Christmas by secularism, consumerism and more recently inter-faith PC-ism, but now we are told by the Anglican Archdeacon of Auckland, no less, that Christians must accept that like it or not, Christmas is about more than Jesus.
Glynn Cardy avers approvingly that Jesus is now displaced as the reason for the season. He concludes his Herald Advent message by calling upon all people to celebrate the values of generosity, caring, togetherness and hospitality, values which reflect Christianity but also transcend it, embracing a borderless spirituality.
It's not that I have any quibble with the values he upholds, but I do not like the idea that Jesus is no longer the primary reason, or reason enough, for celebrating Christmas.
I like the idea even less when it is peddled by a senior cleric. My only consolation is that the same cleric argued in the same column last year that Jesus was conceived when Mary, his mother, was raped. He's not to be taken too seriously.
Jesus' place in the Christmas story, however, cannot be taken too seriously - and not only for reasons of faith. Reason itself requires it. As Mr Cardy himself admits, the supposedly universal values which he extols are seldom - if at all - found unadulterated in our society, even at Christmas time.
Generosity is marred by greed, guilt and debt. Hospitality falls prey to inter-family conflict and alcoholic excess. Feasting can be an occasion for calorie overload, and the goodwill of the Christmas season simply underscores for many their grief, isolation or purposelessness in life. Simply calling upon people of whatever faith, culture, or background to celebrate these values does absolutely nothing to empower them to do so.
On the contrary, it highlights their inability to do so, even once a year. It was precisely to address this problem that God sent his Son Jesus into the world.
God created the world good, in fact very good, but that goodness depended upon unspoiled relationships: vertically (between humans and God) and horizontally (between humans and all the rest of creation, including one another). As both Jesus and a Pharisee summarised it, we were made to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as oneself. What is often misunderstood or denied is that the latter depends upon the former.
What we learn from the opening chapters of the Bible is that human sin spoiled the goodness of creation by spoiling both vertical and horizontal relationships. Humans rejected God's purposes and suffered the consequences: alienation from God and from one another, the consequence being death. The lesson of the Old Testament is that no matter how hard people tried, and how much good instruction and revelation from God they received, they could not restore those relationships or overcome the problem of death. This is surely the lesson from history too. The two things that are truly universal are sin and death.
It is only in this light that we can appreciate the significance of God's Son entering the world in human form as Jesus of Nazareth. This was a unique, historical act; well attested and - if accepted as true - surely the most significant act in the history of the world.
What Jesus did was to take all the consequences of humanity's sin upon himself, including death, and overcome them. This he did by living a perfect life (in spite of being subjected to the whole gamut of human temptation), dying upon a cross, rising from the dead and ascending to heaven. He not only demonstrated the truth of a right relationship with God enabling a right relationship with the rest of creation but he embodied that truth. The deal is that if we accept what he has done, and if we accept him as God's only Son and the only way back to God, all the benefits of his victory over sin and death are, and forever will be, ours.
The key to all this is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is not simply an appeal to a set of values, or a way of life. It is God's invitation to return to a restored relationship with him, which will in turn enable us to live in a restored relationship with the whole of creation. This is only possible because of what Jesus did in history and as we join ourselves to him. In St Paul's words: in Christ God was reconciling the whole world to himself (2 Cor 5:19).
In the light of all this we may return to the question: can Christmas be about more than Jesus? Or to put it another way: has humanity now found something better to celebrate than universal reconciliation and eternal life?
For Christians, the answer to these questions must be a resounding No! Others may of course choose to reject the Christian message and the person of Jesus, and Christians must respect their right to do so. However, they are then left to find their own answers as to why and how to celebrate Christmas, and how those values humanity supposedly aspires to will ever be universally embraced.
My own appeal is that we all take time during this festive season to ask whether there isn't more reason to celebrate Christmas than the vain hope of recovering otherwise under-valued values. If God did indeed step into history in the person of Jesus for our sake, to cut him out of Christmas is not gain but loss, not to exercise greater reason but greater madness. May that be the message from St Matthew-in-the-City too!
* Michael Hewat is vicar of the West Hamilton Anglican parish.