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Christmas Down Under

For several years now I have conducted a Christmas observance on the Sunday closest to the Summer Solstice. I first got the idea from a unit of United Methodist Women who held an annual bazaar in July and entitled it Christmas in July. This group of committed Christian women found a way to attract buyers to their bazaar by helping them prepare for the Christmas holiday even though the correct observance was still a few months away. Their gimmick worked and they raised thousands of dollars for Christian mission. I felt that their example needed to be followed and a Christmas observance at the beginning of the Summer has now become a part of my preaching and teaching repertoire.

One of the advantages of preaching about Christmas at the beginning of the Summer is that I do not have to face competition from Santa Claus and all the commercialization that surrounds the regular observance of Christmas in December. I can concentrate on preaching about the incarnation, the mystery of God's willingness to come and dwell among us, without worrying about whether or not I have sent Christmas cards and purchased Christmas gifts. I can preach unapologetically about God's gift and message.

The other reason why observing Christmas at the beginning of the summer is important is that it reminds us that for many years now a significant, and growing number of Christians always observe Christmas at the beginning of the summer. For centuries Christianity was a Northern Hemisphere religion and our religious observances, our church festivals have been influenced by changes in the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. Beginning in the XVI Century Christianity followed first the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and conquerors, then other European powers went to Africa and the South Pacific and Christianity became a truly global religion. Yet the prevailing images of our holidays remain somewhat parochial, that is, centered in the Northern half of our planet. This cannot continue to be the case for the next millennium. Population projections and the decline of Christianity in Europe and North America together with the growing enthusiasm in the churches below the equator indicate that the future Christians will more likely be from the Southern Hemisphere. Observing Christmas at the beginning of the Summer and remembering God's love for us, for all of us in the world, might enable us in the North to slow down our decline while, at the same time, rejoicing with those who for four centuries now have celebrated Christmas, not in the dead of winter, but at the beginning of summer.

Our Epistle reading today fits perfectly the purposes I have tried to achieve with Christmas in June observances; considering the incarnation without the interference of symbols and practices that sometimes obscure rather than clarify God's gift to us, and expanding our horizons beyond our Eurocentric confines. The Apostle Paul is credited with helping Christianity to become a world religion. Even though he was a Jew by birth and a Pharisee by training he was also a Roman citizen. He could not conceive of Christ as a gift for a small sect from a tribal God. The incarnation was God's gift to humanity, not to Judaism only. Without the benefit, or the obstruction, of Christmas stories, of angels and magi, of stars and shepherds, Paul believed that God had done something very special for all humanity. So in this text he argues that just as sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, now through another man, Christ, God was giving us the gift of freedom from the sin of Adam and from the negative impact of the Law of Moses. Humanity now is invited into a new relationship with God through Christ, one based on God's action for us rather than our achievements through obedience to a set of rules. This is the real gift which we wish to remind ourselves of as we share Christmas gifts in the Winter in the Northern hemisphere. God's gift to us helps us to become gift givers to others. The problem is that in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season we forget the central message and lose ourselves in the business of our observances.

The same thing happens to our brothers and sisters south of the equator. They do not have to don their winter garb to go out and buy gifts for one another sometimes forgetting the Gift of God in Christ. They are busy with beach parties, barbeques (putting another shrimp in the barbie, mate) and not taking the time to ponder and consider what God has done and is doing for us in and through Christ.

The Incarnation is too important to be remembered only one day or one season, it must be constantly in front of us as we live out the meaning of our faith. By adding at least one more day during the year when we can ponder together the meaning of God's love for us we might begin to live out more thoroughly the consequences of the Incarnation.

When the Word became flesh, all flesh became sacred and the functions of the flesh became important also. Somehow our ancestors in the faith got confused and imported dualism from the Greeks. This dualism praised the spirit but devalued the flesh, especially female flesh and the sexual relations among humans. As we consider the Incarnation without interference from busy activities at Christmas it is important to recover the value and honor which the Incarnation restored to the flesh. The poet and hymn writer Brian Wren has written a hymn which can help us, Christians to recover the value of the flesh and to place sexuality in its proper context. The title of Wren's hymn alone helps us recover the importance and value of our God given and Christ affirmed flesh. "Good is the Flesh that the Word has Become" says Wren in the title and then expands with lines like "Good is the body from cradle to grave, growing or aging, arousing, impaired, happy in clothing, or lovingly bared, good is the pleasure of God in our flesh." This goodness of the flesh that the Incarnation announces is supported by scientific research. Recently it was reported that married couples who have sexual relationships at least four times a week look younger, feel better and live longer than their peers. The study emphasized that the frequency of sex alone would not produce the same results. The guilt and shame that often accompany sexual relations outside committed relationships takes diminishes the positive value of sexuality for the rest of the body. Good is the flesh that the Word has become indeed. Wren goes on, "Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh, longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell, glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell, good is the body, for good and for God, Good is the flesh that the Word has become. This one man who offers us the gift of God's love in the flesh came to be born among the poor and the outcast, so, the Incarnation also means that God is involved in the tough realities of life. We, Christians, are those who are keenly aware of God's love for us and for the world. Therefore we, Christians, are those empowered to joyfully respond to the miracle of Christmas with the courage of involvement in the tough and difficult areas of life. Many years ago, the great African American mystic, Howard Thurman, began guiding us in such a direction when he wrote, "When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the shepherds have found their way home, the work of Christmas is begun". This work of Christmas is never ending and varies from community to community but the opportunities for involvement are surely just outside the gates of your church and the doors of your home. The tasks need not be dangerous and dramatic, they can be as simple as visiting elderly people taking them flowers, praying with them, offering a warm dish and an even warmer embrace.

Another Christian poet and musician, Juan Antonio Espinoza wrote a hymn to remind us that the Christ child is born every day, that the Incarnation must become a daily occurrence. His hymn, "Todos los dias nace el Senor" (The Lord's is born every day) says For this earth without light, the Lord is born, to overcome darkness, the Lord is born, to eliminate oppression, to overcome poverty, the Lord is born.

Christmas in Winter or Summer, in the Northern Hemisphere or below the equator must become the point of departure for the affirmation of our bodies and for actions of love congruent with the mystery and miracle of the incarnation.