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Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Is About Easter

Yes, it's that time of the year again. The appearance of fir trees, baubles, coloured lights displayed both inside and outside homes, offices, shops and hanging across the main street and shopping malls. Immortal St. Nicholas wakes up and stretches his arms as he rises once again after eleven months of sleep. As he gazes into the mirror, he sees that despite nearly a year of fasting, he had not lost a single pound in weight. Satisfied, he reaches to his wardrobe and dons his familiar red coat. As he feeds his reindeer, once again he could not be bothered to shave. And as the big day draws near, children everywhere feel their excitement build up in anticipation of what they will find as presents once the colourful wrapping is torn to shreds.

Ah, Christmas! A time to down work tools, put up my feet with a glass of sherry and relax as the snowflakes fall gently outside. Other men would also anticipate a box of cigars. Ah, the aroma of cigar filling the air. It certainly brings in the right kind of atmosphere into the home, while the mantle of snow builds outside, the younger children engaged in their new toys, the teenager engrossed in his new Ipad, while no one is at least bothered to check what sort of rubbish programmes and constant repeats the TV will churn out again, year after year. And Mum, constantly busy in the kitchen while the turkey and potatoes bake slowly to the perfect roast. She also checks the medical box to ensure she had not forgotten to buy the Alka Salza, in anticipation of a stomach in pain with indigestion. Remembering this was essential, for not a single shop will be trading at all up and down the land. A vast contrast to Saturday, just three days earlier, when the street was packed with shoppers, each one jostling to ensure that St. Nicholas had his work cut out.

Seriously, I love Christmas. Generally, I see the holidays as a respite from the daily routine of work in the midst of a cold, often wet season. Together with this, enjoying the company of family members, something which does not occur on a daily basis. But for me personally, there is more, a lot more. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ the Saviour. Then again, after hearing about the birth of Jesus, one dear female exclaimed,
Oh please, don't start bringing religion into the festivities!

In a way, she was right. Nothing can be so morose as religious people going about their ways, looking serious, sad even, while giving us that soul-searching look. Last week one of our Elders was sharing with us about one Christmas day while he was an undergraduate student. He decided to spend the day in his room, praying and fasting, with the hope that this will bring him closer to God. The exact reverse resulted, with him being as far from God than he ever felt before, along with the rest of his family displeased and irked with his "spirituality" spoiling their festive day. Yet to many among the religious, he would have been regarded as a pillar of the faith. No wonder the Lord Jesus had something to say to the Pharisees, who had a very similar religious viewpoint.

Bethlehem, I think, is a very familiar location to the Christianised Western population. But I often wonder what is the percentage of the population who had actually visited Bethlehem.  I recall quite clearly sitting on the floor with all the other pupils during school morning assembly in the 1960s, when our strict, cane-wielding Deputy Head telling us about the site of the Nativity being represented by a star in Bethlehem. I often wondered whether he had seen the star himself, or did another tell him of it? I will never know, since he had long passed away, but in thinking about it, his age corresponded to the time when the British Mandate held power over the Middle East. As a serving soldier, he could well have visited Bethlehem. Yet this information stuck, even when I was an atheist during my late teens.

It was in 1976 that I flew to Israel for the first time in my life to try some backpacking, which included a visit to Bethlehem. From Jerusalem, where I was staying, I took an Arab bus to spend the day in Bethlehem. Once inside the Church of the Nativity, I descended some stairs to the crypt, built over a cave which contained an altar over a fourteen-pronged star, with the site of the manger nearby. I then returned to Bethlehem in 1993 to spend even longer inside the church of the Nativity, contemplating as I kneeled over the same star, kept thoroughly clean and well maintained as thousands of pilgrims and visitors pray and gaze over it each year.

The Star at Bethlehem, the site of the Nativity.

Kneeling over the star has given me a new meaning of Christmas. I felt the presence of God there. Whether this was the actual site of the birth, of course, is debatable. The Bible does not mention anything about a cave. Only in Matthew 2:11 we are told that Joseph and Mary were living in a house in Bethlehem at the time of the arrival of the Magi, which could be several months after the birth. With no room at the inn at the time of the birth, indeed the manger may have been housed in a cave. But they did not remain there after the census was completed. By the time of the eighth day after birth, when the baby was presented at the Temple, the family by then might well have been properly housed.

At church we sing carols like Silent Night and Away in a manger, both depicting Jesus as sleeping quietly and then waking up without uttering a single cry. To me that's nonsense. First, during the birth itself, the baby had to cry. This was a necessity in order for his lungs to inflate with air as he left the womb. Then afterwards, to cry for milk was not sinful, but a life-saving message to attract his mother's attention that he needed to be fed. Then not to mention the need for bathing and sanitation (diaper change, whatever was used back then.) Then on the eighth day, the infant was to experience pain for the first time. This was the rite of circumcision, the shriek uttered from the sharp pain resulted of the covenant he himself had imposed on Abraham and his descendants. By the eighth day, baby Jesus was already familiar with pain.

We are then told by Luke that Jesus made annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem as he was growing up, who by then already had younger siblings, each of them crying, making a fuss and I'm sure, testing their parent's patience. Young Jesus most likely had to watch his siblings receive corporal punishment, even though he himself was sinless, this did not apply to his brothers, who were tainted with sin. But on top of all this, I would have been very surprised if Joseph had not taken young Jesus to Hebron, to pay homage to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob buried at the Cave of Machpelah.

The fortress over the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron.

The fortress was built over the Cave of Machpelah by Herod the Great before the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore the very same masonry we see today must have been familiar with Joseph, Jesus and his brothers. In 1976, I had the privilege to not only stand by the fortress, but to actually enter and stand inside, thanks to the help of an Arab local I happen to befriend. Inside I was able to look at the cenotaphs of Abraham and those of his family. I also re-visited Hebron once more in 1994, but this time I was unable to enter, as the fortress was closed to the public during that year. Nevertheless, to look and touch the very same wall that Jesus was familiar with was indeed edifying!

During his adolescence, Jesus most likely worked with his father in the carpentry trade. As he handled the wood, he became familiar with the pungent as well as the texture. Yet, at the back of his mind, he knew that one day he will be nailed to a cross made of the same material. Personally, I believe that much of his life was spent with his father in Nazareth before entering into his ministry. Although men such as William Blake promoted the idea that Jesus as a boy had set foot in England, and many Englishmen believed this, the truth is far more likely that he hardly left Nazareth except on his annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

At the accumulation of his three year ministry, Jesus was taken by his Jewish accusers to be tried by the Roman governor Pilate, who sentenced him to be crucified. When he was led out of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, how possible it would have been for the sweet smell and texture of the wood having revived memories of happier days when he worked under his father's protection? When the Roman soldiers hammered the nails into his flesh, did he have memory flashes of doing the very same thing himself, not in crucifying anyone but in the making of furniture?

On the cross of wood he was so familiar with, he died, atoning for the sins of the world. He was buried, and three days later, was physically resurrected. This was the final proof that this Jesus, born as a helpless baby and placed in a feeding trough, was Almighty God after all, who fully accomplished what he set out to do. Indeed, Christmas is about Easter.

And that is something we can celebrate - even inviting St. Nicholas to the party.


I wish all my readers and followers a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous year to come.
May God bless you richly.


  1. Amen,
    we can celebrate the Saviour of the world coming to earth with the whosoever on any day of the year. You and your family have a lovely Christmas and a happy new year too.

  2. Merry Christmas, Frank! Religion definitely doesn't have to be a downer. What more reason to celebrate and make the season bright than to remember God's mercy in sending His Son?

  3. Your description of the man who decided to get close to the lord at Christmas by fasting illustrates so clearly the difference between religion and real spirituality. Religion tries to make it happen while true Spirituality allows God to produce it. Religious effort is probably the surest way to prevent Spiritual growth among Christians.

  4. Great post Frank, always topical and interesting. Yes, I have believed for a long time that there is often a difference between religion and Christianity; could we say that religion is about us trying to love God and Christianity is God simply loving us? Sounds ok doesn't it?!

    I love reading about your travels too. Imagine visiting a place where Jesus had been as a lad; now that is something special!

    You wrote: 'As he gazes into the mirror, he sees that despite nearly a year of fasting, he had not lost a single pound in weight.' That sounds like the diet I'm on!

    Have a Happy and peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year Frank.