Christmas in Sydney, Australia, is celebrated in much the same way as in most other major world cities. In many homes you will find tinsel, colored lights, effigies of Santa and angels, and a pile of wrapped gifts beneath a Christmas tree (most trees are synthetic, although friends of mine cut down their own at a “tree farm.”)
In stores there are more of the same, though bigger–and most department stores and suburban shopping malls are happy to play traditional religious carols and display a model manger setting. The churches feature nativity plays, carols services and topical sermons. Attendances swell. Some carols services are in parks, and the largest are hosted by media celebrities and televised live nationally.
On Christmas morning it’s our family tradition to share with family and friends in a service at our local church, unwrap presents, and ease into a relaxed day of eating, drinking, resting, and more eating. Last Christmas I created a new delicacy–marinated kangaroo meatloaf encrusted with mashed potato and toasted almonds, but this year it’s back to the traditional English fare because the children did not like eating Skippy.
Sydney is in the southern hemisphere, so the weather can be sweltering, and there is often bushfire smoke rather than snow in the air, along with news of homes and lives destroyed by fire. Although secularists have tried to abolish public expressions of the Christian tradition of Christmas, and some politicians given a polite nod to political correctness, this year there is plenty of evidence that Jesus is the reason for the season.
Biblically accurate Christmas displays take up entire storefront windows in the city centre. People freely say “Merry Christmas” to each other. After attempting to “neutralize” the spiritual significance of Christmas in 2004, Sydney Mayor Clover More now enthusiastically embraces the tradition and swathes the city streets in illuminated images and fills the air with the inspiring sounds of a truly Australian Christmas.
I do get a niggling feeling, though, that if Jesus himself were to come among us again, he would be acutely embarrassed–even affronted–at the lengths some of us go to in celebrating his birth. After all, that event was hardly bathed in television lights and graced by celebrities, nor was the stable filled with toys and tinsel. In fact, the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it paint a very different picture.
This Christmas, I invite you to turn aside from the glitz and gastronomy and, for a moment, contemplate Jesus the poor kid, Jesus the powerless one, Jesus the outsider–Jesus the pioneer of the world’s salvation. For that is the manner in which he came, and that is the one each of us must finally reckon with and, by God’s grace, with whom we are called to identify.
This Christmas, I invite you to give your worship to the Child of Bethlehem who is the King of Kings, to the powerless exile who is for us all, to the incomparable Savior who bares God’s loving heart, and opens God’s gracious hand, and unveils God’s beautiful face to our broken, bleeding world. And receive from Jesus the uncommon peace and incomparable goodwill that renews and restores both persons and communities.
That’s what I hope to do: to give and receive, lavishly, extravagantly, in the true spirit of Christmas.
Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College in Sydney.
Rod Benson is an ordained minister who is the Research Support Officer at the Donald Robinson Library, Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia. He and his wife Emma Goodsir are members of Thornleigh Community Baptist Church.