Biblical insight adds meaning to the festive period of gift-giving, writes Michael Hewat
Eric Weiner, author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times recently that Americans are terrible when it comes to talking about God.
But at least Americans talk. Articles on religion are extremely rare in New Zealand's leading daily, and without Garth George and Glynn Cardy they would be nigh non-existent. What is completely missing, though, is any kind of serious engagement and debate about significant issues of faith.
Is this because religion does not matter to New Zealanders? Census figures indicate otherwise. Perhaps it's because we fear the polarisation which Weiner bemoans as a blight on religious debate in the United States.
Yet we seem quite able to cope with the polarised opinion which invariably dominates in every other field of intellectual engagement. Witness the way climate change and fiscal policy, for example, are debated with an almost religious fervour.
As we approach the most widely celebrated Christian festival of the year, it is surely reasonable to debate its significance - or is Glynn Cardy's four reasons to celebrate the last word on Christmas for this year?
As interesting as his historical background on the Winter Solstice celebration is, this tradition has nothing to do with what or why we celebrate at Christmas in New Zealand. At best it may have a residual influence on how we do so, though when did anyone here last light a Yule-log? This tradition is lost and irrelevant to a 21st-century Kiwi Christmas.
The Santa Claus tradition, on the other hand, has without question grown to become the dominant one, and I agree with Cardy's summary of its best and worst features. The point that needs to be made, though, is that Santa Claus is not himself the reason or cause we celebrate, but an inspiration and symbol of how we celebrate: by giving gifts and feasting.
How and why Cardy separates what he calls the Pageant tradition from the biblical story of Jesus' birth will be the greatest mystery any of us face this Christmas.
Does he really think these are separate traditions, that there would be a nativity tradition without the infancy narratives in Luke's Gospel?
When Cardy finally gets to the Bible's Christmas tradition, he asserts that it is not about a baby but about a man Jesus, of lowly origins standing with people of lowly origins against the power and wealth of the mighty.
Cardy concludes that the Bible tradition, merged with the other three traditions but with no suggestion that it is primus inter pares, offers us insights into how we might better live.
This is simply incorrect. True, Jesus' birth was lowly and he was a man of humility. True, Jesus stood up against oppressive human wealth and power, and the Church is called to proclaim and live out that message all through the year.
But the reason Christians celebrate at Christmas is that God took on human form in Jesus of Nazareth and entered the world, as a baby, to redeem it.
John's Gospel speaks in terms of the Word (which is God) becoming flesh and dwelling among us so that we might truly know who God is and be reconciled to him. In Matthew's Gospel the angel who appears to Joseph says: "Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
There it is, the simple message of Christmas. God entered the world in the person of his son, Jesus, to redeem the world and every person in it from sin. Given that, according to the Bible, sin is the root cause of all suffering, sickness and death - indeed the whole fallen state of the world - it is no wonder that this is supposed to be good news, a cause for great celebration.
Hence the response of the lowly shepherds and the Magi from the East. They recognised the uniqueness of the birth of the baby Jesus and responded with worship and gifts. In doing so they submitted their lives to his lordship. Saint Nicholas' legendary gift-giving was a similar response.
Of course there were negative responses to Jesus' birth, too, notably that of King Herod. Instead of celebrating, he allowed his own sinful nature to take full flight and sought to kill Jesus, killing many other babies in the process.
Few of us like to think of ourselves as sinners. Such a notion offends our pride and reeks of judgment. Perhaps that is the primary reason why the Christian tradition has fallen out of favour or been reworked to make Jesus less than our saviour.
Offer small children the choice between a candy cane and a $100 note and they will be sure to choose the candy cane. Likewise, children will choose Santa over Jesus.
Celebrating Christmas the Santa way may bring immediate benefits, making us more generous and big-hearted and festive for a day. But celebrating the Christ way is to acknowledge that we have a saviour and Lord who can redeem our fallen nature, transforming us and the world permanently into a far better place.
That is cause for lasting joy and peace, and a meaningful way open to us all.
Michael Hewat is vicar of the West Hamilton Anglican Parish