Where did the snowy palm trees go?
In my old Roman town of Antibes, on the French Riviera, the “alpine Christmas village” was a comforting tradition for many years. At the beginning of December, electricians and carpenters would descend like so many thumping Santas upon the Place Nationale, evicting the daily tenants of the parking lot to erect little chalets under the patient, ancient plane trees.
The trunks of the towering palms were sprayed with artificial snow. Speakers strung impossibly from on high filled the sun-split skies with French carols and popular Christmas songs. The air was redolent with the smoky earthy smell of chestnuts roasting on rusty old metal barrels, with the sweet allspicy steam of mulled wine that you could buy at a “chalet” and sip along the festive alleyways, always on the alert for a darting child sticky and pink from their barbe à papa (candy floss).
Sure, it was hokey. But it was definitely French, and it was definitely fun.
This year North America has taken over the marketplace. Spruce trees “ready snowed” from the factory. Shops that once proudly sold traditional clay “santons de Provence” now flog “Made in China” ornaments that say “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons (sic) Greetings”. Not a “Joyeux Noël” or “Bonne Fête” in sight. Even the Christmas cards are all English. And you’re more likely to hear Adele than Francis Cabrel in the air.
If it weren’t for the nailing Mediterranean sunlight (so incongruous on those “snowy” spruces) you could be in Toronto or Toledo.
Well, perhaps not quite. At least it’s still unashamedly Christmas, though the grim-faced National Guard patrolling ceaselessly with their machine guns at the ready are a constant reminder of why we might fear being so bold.
But it’s not French.
I don’t know if it was the British Indie writers’ champion Nick Stehpenson or his buddy Mark Dawson who first coined the term FOMO, but I’m sure I first heard it from them. Fear Of Missing Out. It’s like a Millennials’ remix of “the grass is always greener”: I won’t make a decision now because there’s got to be something better that I haven’t seen yet. A better restaurant, a better contract, a better school. A better place to spend my vacation. A better property to call home. A better person to give my life to…so I won’t commit to anyone.
We say “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Jesus said the only place a prophet is without honour is among his own people.
By definition, nothing we know well can be great. So we hold out for the new, the different, the untasted.
But, as Spock said to T’Pring and her hard-won lover in the old Star Trek show “Amok Time”, when get what you think you would die for, you find that the wanting was better than the having.
Is this homogeneity inevitable just because we live in the so-called “Global Village”? Is it such a good thing, that we can’t tell what country we’re in from the signs or the dress or the speech of those around us?
Trying to minimize our surface differences, with plastic baubles decorating our lives, plastic music polluting our ears, isn’t doing a thing to help with our fundamental, dangerous differences.
How much of the bloodshed and brutality in our world is caused by FOMO? This fear that what we have isn’t as good as what “they have over there”. So either we take what “they” have by force. Or we so terrorize them that “they” can’t enjoy what they have.
In the midst of all this eye-scratching bitterness, today we who call ourselves Christians celebrate the Incarnation, the taking on of human flesh by the Great Equalizer, the One who created us from and through and in the vastness of his love, and who lays all of the wealth of who he is at our feet.
Jesus Christ stands alone among all the religious figures and formulas of the world as the only One offering, not a way of life, but The Way to Life. Real life. Forever life.
He did not come to make a people conform to a rigorous law of behavioural standards. He came to free people born in slavery to their own selfish desires. To give ultimate liberty to his children—liberty to realize their individual gifts and to share them, without restraint, without borders.
God made a promise to his children, his chosen people:
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
2 Corinthians 3:3
The apostle Paul contrasts this with the letter of the Law—an externally applied set of rules for conduct that is necessary to exert control over people when there is no change in the inner person.
Unlike other religious leaders, false prophets and false teachers, Jesus did not come to make bad people behave better, or to suffer the sword if they misbehave.
Jesus came to raise dead people to life. And in doing so he writes his goodness in our hearts, so that, as his children, we not only long to do his will but we are given power, through the Spirit, to accomplish it:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:4-6
Only when we are so changed inwardly—when our hearts of stone are replaced by Jesus Christ with living, fleshly hearts—only then can we be free to express without fear our individuality, to be happy and content for who and what we are. Because “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)—not plastic Christmas trees that all come out of the same box, or plastic music or plastic smiles that hide a hating heart.
I inherited from my dad a wonderful collection of WWII songs by his childhood “sweetheart”, Vera Lynn. Being British-born myself, I can’t listen to “The White Cliffs of Dover” without getting teary-eyed:
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.
But the world isn’t free. One form of evil gives way to another, and then to another.
There can’t be freedom as long as there are laws about when and how we should pray or dress or eat. Laws that enslave and allow the degradation of women. Laws that settle matters with the sword instead of with grace and love. Laws that want to conform us into a particular mould designed by just another sinful man or woman, rather than by the almighty, all-gracious, all-kind, Creator who is God.
There is no freedom apart from a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Many of us, even those with no particular faith, “pray” for peace on earth on this day, on Christmas Day. That peace is only possible if it begins with peace in individual, fleshly hearts. (Remember the old song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me”?) As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so famously noted, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” (The Gulag Archipelago).
Have you seen that dividing line in your own heart? Have you struggled to find peace and contentment in your life when all around you is pressure to be better, to do better, to have more, to want more? Have you looked at the hatred and terror-mongering of others and said, “It’s not fair” or “How could there be a god if he allows such things”?
Do you look at the images of a baby in a manger and say, “Well, yeah, cute and all, but so what? He’s just a baby. Useless. I can have my Christmas tree without him. And hey, my tree is real, not plastic, so I’m doing okay…”
Jesus didn’t stay in the manger. He grew to be a man who called others to follow him to a cross. He came to bring light to a dark world, and to pass that light on to his children. Light and life, life full and rich, abundant, complete.
With or without the baubles.
Well, perhaps there should be laws about what people can do to the outside of their homes in the “spirit” of Christmas…(sometimes “different” does mean worse!).
Or perhaps there shouldn’t be. When we see our neighbour’s egregious taste, shouldn’t we be grateful we live in a culture and society where such expressions are greeted with groans and perhaps chuckles, rather than machinegun fire?
There definitely should be a law about keeping mulled wine and roasting chestnuts going in Antibes!
But there should be no law about what we believe. Only the freedom to echo the call to life and liberty:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Now that’s a gift to unwrap and keep. On Christmas Day and forever. Not made in China. Made in heaven.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King.Let every heart prepare him room,and heaven and nature sing…