Malaysia in early December was full of Christmas preparations. No nativity scenes as this is a Muslim country, but gingerbread houses, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees everywhere. And always, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants, in shopping malls the sound of carols playing; not “Fairytale of New York” or “When a Child is Born“, but traditional carols like those that played when I was a child.
Back in the UK and Ireland, actually less decorations, and certainly none of the giant gingerbread houses (except in the German Market in Birmingham), but certainly, in hotels and shops, tinsel and Christmas trees, and piped carols and Christmas music. This time a broader selection of music, including “Fairytale’ (which I love) and ELP’s “I believe in Father Christmas” (which is also glorious).
Maybe the words of the latter are a little too dark for Malaysian taste. According to Wikipedia’s page on the song, some think the lyrics are anti-Christian, but Greg Lake evidently said it was written as reaction to the commercialisation of Christmas. Certainly the song captures some of the disillusionment of a world that has lost its certainties, yet wistfulness at what it has lost, and still feeling a sense of the hope that Christmas conjures even when the reasons for it have been long forgotten:
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
On a recording of an interview with BBC Scotland on Lake’s own web site, he even says that he does believe in Father Christmas 🙂
However, as I heard it again and again on my travels, and especially as I sat musing in the Harbour Hotel in Galway, it was the last lines of the final verse that captured me:
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve
When it was written not long after the napalm drenched years of the Vietnam war and today when radio-controlled drones and road-side bombs are never far from the news, the message of peace on earth can sound like a cruel joke. Maybe the ravaged world at Christmas time is no more than we deserve.
Yet the strange and shocking message of the child in the stable is exactly the opposite, the Christmas we get is not what we deserve. The Christmas story isn’t about God waiting until the Jewish nation were good enough, nor the Romans that occupied their land. Like every baby born to every couple, it does not wait in the womb until we are good enough to beparents, God help us if it were so, the human race would have long perished! The Christ child is not a reward for the deserving, but, to a broken world, a free gift for all.
I think this lavish free gift was particularly close to mind due to a talk I heard while in Malaysia. The speaker was working with IT systems for disabled children, and started his talk referring to the Koran for motivation; he said how the Koran teaches that if you do good on earth you will receive a reward in heaven. For me coming from a Christian background, this message was both familiar and similar to teachings I’ve heard from childhood, and yet also in some ways precisely the opposite. The two parts of the clause are the same, but the connective is different. In Christian theology, it is not that there is a reward in heaven because we do good, but rather we are enjoined to do good because we already have a reward in heaven. The full, unstinting, unreserved gift of God always comes first.
This said, my feeling is that things are not so different in the actual practice of life. Certainly, Muslim friends I know are not counting up their good deeds in some celestial bank balance. For Muslim, Christian and Atheist alike, those who give themselves to ‘charity’ (such a lovely world, sadly debased) find it becomes its own purpose.
But for Christians, it also seems hard to accept that the Christmas we get is not what we deserve. There is something uncomfortable and difficult about that free gift. It is like those spam emails that come offering free computers or free holidays, we feel there must be a catch, or maybe that we don’t want to be beholden to others. We invent ways to invert the clauses, to try to earn things, to turn the gift into wages. In traditional churches it is about rituals and observances, in reformed churches it tends to be about statements of belief and right doctrine. Both are important, but so easily become ways of earning what has already been given, of distracting us from and detracting from the core message of Christmas, as told to the shepherds 2000 years ago: “good news of great joy that will be for all the people“.