When I was a kid, I received Christmas present from my parents every year. But if you ask me if I remember what they gave me each year, I can only say that I remember one. It was a Lego set. I simply don’t have any impression of other presents. So, what’s so special about the Lego set?
There are two kinds of presents in this world. One kind is an end in itself. For example, chocolate is an end in itself; you eat it and that’s it. The other kind of present is not an end in itself; it leads to new possibility. Lego set is the second kind. From one set of Lego bricks, we can build castle, ship, cars, animals, robots, towns, and islands. It fires up our imagination. We can bring an entire imaginary world into existence.
I like to think that God’s gift of Jesus Christ for us is the second kind of present. He is like a Lego set. He is the divine present that leads to new possibility for the world. During one Christmas, a Jewish family went shopping in the mall. The young son in the family saw a beautiful Christmas tree and was fascinated by it. He turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, why can’t we have a Christmas tree in our house?” The father very gently said, “Jewish house cannot have Christmas tree.” Then the little boy thought for a while and then replied, “Daddy, why did we buy a Jewish house?”
While the young boy in the story thought that Christmas is just another holiday with decorated tree, his father knew very well the symbol behind the festivity: It is about the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world. The Almighty came in human flesh. And to the non-Christian religious Jews, this is blasphemous. Yet, this is what Christmas is about.
What Christmas stands for is not only a blasphemy to the Jews, but it is also a threat to the rest. Jean-Paul Satre was a household name in France in the 1960s. He was a national hero partly due to his works in philosophy, particularly his contribution to the school of thought called ‘existentialism’. Sartre provides the definitive character for existentialism with his famous slogan “existence precedes essence”. When he died, there were about 50,000 people attended his funeral held at Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. (Something that is very unlikely to happen for a philosopher in Singapore.) Sartre remains the father-figure for many existentialists today.
In Sartre’s big book Being and Nothingness, he talks about how other people are a threat to us. He gives the example that we are most absorbed in ourselves, true to our own nature, when we stalk at other people through a keyhole. We are so preoccupied peeping at how people behave, gossip, laugh, and live their lives that we are not conscious of our own shame anymore. Yet, in the midst of us looking through the keyhole, suddenly we hear a noise behind us. It appears that another person is stalking us! At such realization, suddenly we feel threatened. We feel ashamed. Other people are threatening! (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness [UK: Routledge, 2003], 282-284.) In his popular play No Exit, Sartre wrote that, “Hell is other people.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays [USA: Vintage, 1989], 45.) May be because of this reason, Sartre doesn’t believe in God. Having the divine ‘Other’ looking at how we live at every moment throughout our life is a terrifying threat to our human nature. As if that is not enough, God became one of us to sneer at us, showing us how far off we have been from God’s standard. Christmas, in this sense, is a threat.
However, that is not all there is. It is precisely because God became one of us through Jesus that we have the assurance that God truly knows us. And despite all our guilt and shame, God died for us. And because of this, we received new life in Jesus. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
There was a mother with her three children went for Christmas shopping. As she was alone, she had a very difficult time watching the three kids while at the same time trying to shop for all the presents on her list. The three children were nagging at her, wanting every toy on the shelves. So the mother spent the whole day juggling between watching her kids and shopping. She was fed up. At the end of the day, when she took the crowded lift to go to the basement carpark, she sighed aloud and aired her frustration, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be arrested and hang!” Then someone in the lift replied quietly, “Madam, I believe they have crucified that guy.”
Living through life can cause us frustration. We get that in our work and in our relationship with other people, and may be also in our Christmas shopping. Sometimes, like the frustrated mother in the story, we are too caught up with what we set up for ourselves to do and lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. Let us not forget, amidst our festive busyness, that Christmas is the new life that God has given us through Christ. Through Him, we have new approach to deal with our work. Through Him, we have new way to relate to other people. Through Him, there is new life. That is God’s ‘Lego bricks’ for the world.
Therefore, what Christmas stands for is about Jesus’ birthday and our birthday. Because of Jesus’ birthday, all of us have a new birthday, a new possibility, a new future. We may not be able to choose which family should we born into, which country should we born into, how do we want to be born as. But because of Jesus’ birthday, we can now choose to be born into a new life in Him. Christmas, like Lego bricks, opens up the possibility of new life for us. Like how Rowan Williams said it, “He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.”
We may dislike our life, with the flaws and shortcomings in our nature. We may be terrified by the ever-presence of God looking at our every movement. Yet Christmas brings about the possibility that despite all this we can have new life. A life touched by divine love that is completely renewed by what Jesus has done for us. A life that welcomes every existentialist to receive.