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There's more to Christmas than celebrating the birth of Jesus, says Ian Harris. His mission statement should lie at the core.
Ever wondered what Jesus thought he was doing? What he, rather than people in later centuries, thought he was born to do? The answer is very down-to-earth, and should lie at the heart of every Christmas season. Often it doesn't, and more's the pity.
That's because the church switched its emphasis quite early from the teachings of Jesus to the man himself. Over time, and in tune with the way past eras thought about reality, it heaped upon him all kinds of supernaturalism, so that the teachings became diluted and the man became the message.
The Nativity stories are a good example. In the conventions of Jesus' times, such a man required a miraculous birth story, so the writers of the New Testament gospels provided it. Then the fertile imagination of the church embroidered it incessantly.
Jesus the man became the divine sin-bearer, potentially on behalf of everyone who ever lived but above all for those who put their faith in him (that is, the church). He rescued them from the torments of a very real hell, saved them from the anger of a very real God, and assured them of eternal bliss in a very real heaven. His birth, which the earliest Christian records don't even mention, became a focal point for celebration and devotion. Jesus was worshipped and adored.
But what about the message? In Luke's gospel, Jesus declares his own meaning and purpose right at the start of his ministry. He had gone to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. There he stood and read a short passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," wrote Isaiah, "because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
Jesus sat down and added, in effect: "That's what I'm all about." It was his mission statement. He was intent on lifting the burdens that weighed people down and giving them hope, freedom and dignity. That, in his view, was what God desired or as we might say in our secular context, that's what Godness looks like when it's working out in society. It removes the oppressive structures and actions that grind people down, and gives them a new start.
Often this revolutionary manifesto has been spiritualised to make it more palatable to those who sustain the church. The poor became the poor in spirit, the captives those enslaved by sin, the blind those who don't see Jesus as the creeds portray him.
A better approach is to ask what good news would look like to the poor in Godzone? At the least a living wage. An opportunity to break free of debt without having to win Lotto. Healthcare assured when they need it. A warm, dry home. In short, security and respect.
As Jesus saw it, these are issues of spiritual health as well as social and economic wellbeing, both for individuals and communities. His vision of God's kingdom come on Earth encompasses all three.
Some deride this as "the social gospel", but building that sort of society is at the core of Jesus' message. It has at times been neglected, diverted, corrupted. But when it has been acted upon it has brought new life, hope and freedom to millions.
In light of that, what are we to make of Christmas this year? The season brings a reminder that this visionary began life as a baby in the humblest of circumstances. A poor teenage girl giving birth in a stable, doubts about Jesus' paternity, the family fleeing to Egypt to save him from certain death but also stories of a star and angels and shepherds and astrologers from the east.
Much of this is there not because it happened but as poetic embroidery to convey his followers' conviction that this baby was destined to be someone unique in the purposes of God. That crystallised into the title bestowed on him as the messiah or Christ.
To the secular mind that's a problem, because "Christ" came to mean Jesus divinised and steeped in supernatural speculation - listen to the carols!
In our 21st century that needs to be peeled away and the notion of "Christ" recalibrated as a Jungian archetype embedded deep within the human psyche, a symbol of wholeness, the true Self waiting not only to be born, but lived. As Jesus did.
•Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.