Monday, 29 December 2014

Buying next year's Christmas cards at the post-Christmas sales.

I have a confession to make.

I buy my Christmas cards at the Boxing Day sales.

I do it almost every year.  I've done it this year.  Most of my Christmas cards for 2015 were purchased in the final week of 2014.  Less than ten days have passed between my posting the last of my 2014 cards and my purchasing the bulk of my 2015 cards.

There, I've said it.  And, as they say, confession is good for the soul. 

And, as a self-proclaimed "Christmas nerd", I'd like to reflect a bit on Christmas cards (assuming that many of my fellow "Christmas nerds" are also buying next years cards now, as well).

Christmas cards fall into two main categories:  religious cards and non-religious cards.   But, both religious cards and non-religious cards have a number of sub-categories as well.

First, there are the various types of religious Christmas cards.

  • There is the generic religious Christmas card.  As a clergy type, I buy, send, and receive a lot of these.  Essentially they feature artwork depicting various aspects of the Nativity stories in the Gospels:  Mary and Joseph riding a donkey, shepherds gathering by the manger, Magi giving their gifts, etc.   The artwork can be either traditional or contemporary, figurative or stylised.  The message is something that is spiritual, but not overly theological:  something simple such as "Christmas Blessings".

  • More upmarket is the "artistic" religious Christmas card.  They feature reproductions of classic paintings by well-known artists, with biblical themes such as The Annunciation, The Madonna and Child, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Adoration of the Shepherds, etc.  You can usually buy these only at the gift shops connected to major art museums.  They're usually pretty expensive ... too expensive for my Christmas card budget.

  • Then there are the "pious" Christmas cards, sent by the sort of Christians who are really, really, REALLY religious.  They may feature slogans such as "the reason for the season", or "Wise men still seek him", or "Keep Christ in Christmas".  They are sent by the more "religious" sort of Christian either to like-minded individuals or to those people they are targeting as possible converts.  Personally, I'm nowhere near religious enough to send this sort of card.

  • Finally, there is the "cutesy" religious Christmas card.  It's like the generic religious Christmas card, except that the shepherds, Magi, angels, Mary, Joseph, etc., are all small children, as if they posed for the card during a kindergarten Nativity play.

Then, we have the various varieties of non-religious Christmas cards.

  • First of all there is the generic festive Christmas card.  The artwork features a Christmas tree, or a wreath on a door, or a poinsettia.  The message inside the card is something like "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year", or "Season's Greetings", or (if the sender doesn't mind risking the wrath of Fox News) "Happy Holidays".  For most people, this type of card constitutes the majority of the Christmas cards they send.

  • An upmarket version of the generic festive card is the Dickensian card.  The message and general tone of the card is similar to the generic card, except that the artwork depicts scenes that are definitely British and definitely 19th century, usually with a group of enthusiastic carollers in the foreground.  They're a bit more expensive than the generic card, but usually not as expensive as the "artistic" religious card.

  • Cards featuring Santa Claus also have their place.  They're particularly good for families with small children.  They're also a safe choice for people who, if they receive a religious card (of any variety) would complain that "the bloody churches are even trying to take over Christmas", but who would also engage in lengthy bouts of Anglophobic rage if they receive a Dickensian card.

  • Animal cards are popular, particularly cat cards.  Cat cards are more popular than dog cards, largely because cat people are generally enthusiasts for all types of cats, while many doggie people limit their enthusiasm to one or two breeds.

  • Then there's what I call the "Blue Christmas" card.  Most of us find we send more and more of these cards to people as we get older.  These are cards that recognise that the person receiving the card has had a bad year (because of bereavement, ill health, relationship troubles, problems in the employment area, etc.) and will not be expected to have all that "merry" a Christmas.  The sentiment to go for is something like "Have as nice a Christmas as possible under the circumstances, and I hope next year will be better for you than this one was."  Some religious cards work well in this regard (although definitely NOT a "pious" card), but each Christmas most of us need to send a few non-religious cards of the "Blue Christmas" variety.

  • Then there's the "Australiana" card.  This is usually a variety of the Santa card, and features the aforementioned Mr. Kringle in a t-shirt, shorts, and thongs* relaxing on a beach, or possibly even surfing.  The (highly profound) message here is "Here in Australia, we have Christmas in summer."**  Sometimes, you'll find one with St. Nick in his full regimentals on a sleigh being pulled by a team of kangaroos, rather than reindeer.  If you wish to send this sort of card, consider the following guidelines:  (a)  Only send them to friends and relatives who live overseas.  Sending this card to an Australian (other than one with a strong appreciation for kitsch) will lead to reports that you've taken leave of your senses.  (b)  Don't send them every year.  Most people get easily bored with this sort of card.  (c)  Only send them to people with a sense of humour.  These cards can be pretty funny (usually unintentionally so).

And then, occupying a space between the "religious" and "non-religious" cards (almost as a quasi-Anglican via media) are the "ethical" Christmas cards.  Their message is neither overtly religious nor relentlessly festive.  These cards will concentrate on such sentiments from the biblical Christmas stories as "Peace on Earth".  The message of the card, in addition to the usual greetings of the season, will include an encouragement to all people of good will to promote peace on earth.  (Many cards sold by charities - particularly overseas aid agencies - are also "ethical" cards.)  If you're able to organise a good supply of "ethical" cards, these will be able to satisfy almost everyone on your Christmas card list, even those needing a "blue Christmas" card (although you may still want a few Santa cards for families caring either for small children or for extreme right-wingers). 

One note of caution re the "ethical" cards:  make sure they're printed on recycled paper ... and that the back of the card says so.  Nothing says "ethically confused" quite as effectively as an "ethical" Christmas card printed on non-recycled paper.

The sales are still on.  Next year's Christmas cards are out there at attractive prices, waiting for you to buy them.  Let your inner "Christmas nerd" emerge.

*   In case you're wondering, by the word "thongs", I'm using it in the Australian sense of uncomfortable summer footwear with a tendency to fall apart at the worst possible times (called "flip-flops" in the US), rather than in any other sense.

**  This does not take into account, of course, the fact that people in New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and numerous other countries can make the same claim.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

An example of inspiring graffiti: "Form One Planet"

Travelling around Tasmania, one often sees a sign such as this on the roadside:

With the addition of two simple letters, the direction to drivers to form one lane becomes a call to us all to form a single planet.

Perhaps the message of this inspiring piece of graffiti can become a New Year's Resolution for us all during 2015.

Form One Planet!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Good News for Tangmalangaloo: a Christmas sermon (Isaiah 9: 2 - 7, John 1: 1 - 14)

Jack Burton is a Methodist minister in Norwich, in the UK. For many years he earned his living as a bus driver, while serving in an unpaid, ecumenically-recognised ministry to people for whom churches – for whom any churches – are alien territory. One day, a few days before Christmas, he entered Norwich Cathedral with Tony, his bus conductor. Tony was just that sort of person for whom a church – any church – was alien territory. He was a secular, working-class bloke, possibly a bit like the shepherds in Luke’s version of the story of the Nativity.
Jack Burton tells the story:
Inside the great building – decorated for Christmas – : Tony looked round and said, ‘Is this for everyone?’ I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant: ‘Can anyone walk round here at any time?’ ‘Can anyone come to the services here?’ But I didn’t stop to ask – I answered immediately and emphatically, “Yes, of course.’ It was a good question.         (Jack Burton, Transport of Delights, SCM, 1976, p. 61.)

“Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
In the lessons from scripture we’ve heard in this service, we’ve heard about God embracing the whole of our human condition.
To us – to all of us – to an “us” so broad that it includes all humanity - to an “us” so broad that there no one outside of the “us” to constitute a “them” – to this radically inclusive “us” a child is born.
“Is this for everyone?”
 “Yes, of course.”
The “Word” – the eternal and creative “Wisdom” of the living God - became flesh. The radical nature of this statement is seen in the fact that the original Greek word used here for “flesh”, sarx, this was considered quite a crude word in the Greek language. The Word became flesh, so that the living God embraced all of our existence, not just the pretty bits.
"Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition. This is why the more rigidly “religious” type of Christians often just don’t get Christmas. The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition:
  • people of all races and cultures,
  • people of all faiths and spiritualities,
  • people who are “religious” and people who are not,
  • people who are respected by their communities and people who are rejected by their communities.
 “Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
As Sir John Betjeman declared in the poem we've just heard, Christmas is about God becoming fully human and accessible to us all:
 … And is it true? And is it true,
 This most tremendous tale of all,
 Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
 A Baby in an ox’s stall?
 The Maker of the stars and sea
 Become a Child on earth for me?
 … No carolling in frosty air,
 Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
 Can with this simple Truth compare --
 That God was Man in Palestine
 And lives to-day in Bread and Wine
“Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
And, for many people in our community, Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. We hear this in John O'Brien's Australian bush poem "Tangmalangaloo", when the bishop asks the boy in the confirmation class:
Come tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?
Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. 
“Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
And there is also an undeniable element of fun and festivity in this time of celebration. John O’Brien’s bishop was reminded of this when the boy asserted the significance of Christmas Day in terms of “It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
And Christmas is all of this. 
  • Yes, to us – to all of us – a child is born.
  • Yes, the Word has become flesh and dwells among us - among all of us.
  • Yes, “God was Man in Palestine / And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.
  • Yes, “wandering ones return … [this day] …with smiles and greetings, too?”
  • And yes, “It … [is] … the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
Christmas is all of this.
“Is this for everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas: a sermon (Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, Mark 1: 1- 8)

John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas?  There’s an odd couple, if there ever was one.

On the one hand, there’s this figure of John the Baptist, of whom we hear a great deal in the scripture lessons read on these middle Sundays of Advent, today and next Sunday.  He’s this austere figure, with an austere lifestyle, and an austere message of judgement.  He was clothed with camel’s hair, eating a diet of locusts and wild honey.  He was depicted in Christian art (over the centuries) as this oddly dressed figure with wild hair and with a long, bony finger:  a finger that was always pointed at someone.  The finger was either pointed out in judgement at whoever was looking at the picture or pointed out in the direction of the Christ, as he declared “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, a figure whom each of the four gospel writers found it easy to associate with the prophetic voice described by Isaiah as calling out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert the highway of our God.

And it’s odd, though, that at roughly the same time as when we remember the role of John (with all his austerities) in the story of faith, we have a day (yesterday) when we remember that most un-austere of Christian saints, St. Nicholas,  patron saint of:
  • children,
  • sailors,
  • pawnbrokers,
  • people who have been unjustly imprisoned,
  • the nations of Greece, Russia, and the Netherlands,
  • as well as the cities of Aberdeen in Scotland, Galway in Ireland, and New York in the United States (sharing this last – fairly demanding – saintly gig with St. Patrick). 
I suppose in his later cultural manifestation as Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of last minute Christmas shoppers, reindeer drivers, employers of elf labour, bearded men, and overweight people who still think they look good in red.

Comparing St. Nicholas with John the Baptist, even if we disregard the way in which the fourth century Greek St. Nicholas morphed into the modern festive figure of Santa Claus (by an indirect route by way of the Netherlands and the United States), still there is a real lack of the austerity of John the Baptist in what we know of St. Nicholas.

One of the stories about St. Nicholas involved an argument in which he was involved at the Council of Nicaea, a council which was very significant in determining the shape of Christian belief.  Evidently, during the debates, he said something at which another member of the council took offense.  The other member threw a punch at Nicholas, and reportedly broke his nose, causing an all-in brawl to take place.  We don’t usually think of saints getting involved in dust-ups at church meetings, but it happened to Nicholas.

Of all the old legends about St. Nicholas, one which had a particular ring of truth about it involved a poor family with three daughters.  The family could not afford dowries to enable the daughters to marry, so they contemplated selling the daughters into slavery.

According to the story, on three separate occasions, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins into the house, secretly, anonymously, and at night; with each bag of coins enabling a dowry.  (One version of the story had Nicholas using the chimney of the house as the point of entry for his bags of coins.  This helped the development of the legends of St. Nicholas, particularly in the later cultural process by which the fourth century saint became the contemporary Santa Claus.)

In any event, I think it’s a beautiful thing that one of our culture’s greatest symbols of generosity, joy, and festivity had its origin in a Christian saint.

And we have these two contrasting images before us at this time of year:
  • John with his funny clothing and long, bony figure pointing out at us, urging all people to repent of our sins.
  • Nicholas, at least in his modern guise, calling out to all people, wishing “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night”.
But, you know, both John and Nicholas point to the Christ.
  • John the Baptist points us to the figure of the demanding Christ: Jesus who calls all people to drop everything and follow him; the Christ whom we particularly meet in the pages of John’s gospel.
  • St. Nicholas points us to the figure of the inclusive Christ:  Jesus who touched lepers, who ate and drank with sinners, and who befriended those whom society rejected:  the Christ whom we see most clearly in the pages of Luke’s gospel.

Both the demanding Christ and the inclusive Christ are there in the New Testament.  To have a balanced picture of Christ, both are necessary. 

I believe most of us here (myself included) are far more “at home” with this more inclusive view of the Christ, the Christ of Luke’s gospel, the Christ to whom the joyful (and even jolly) Nicholas bore witness.  Most of us here find the more demanding Christ, the Christ to which the austere John bore witness, to be more than a bit confronting. 

But then there are other Christians who find themselves more at home with the demanding Christ, and with the austerities of John.  Many Christians find the more inclusive, welcoming Christ that many of us have experienced to be as confronting as most of us find the more austere Christ of John. 

Both the austerities of John the Baptist and the joyful, hospitable, inclusive generosity typified by St. Nicholas bear witness to the Christ.  The sacrament which we will celebrate in a few minutes bears witness both to Christ’s inclusive welcome to us all and to Christ’s demanding call to us all.