Christmas can be a time of saccharine sentimentality, accentuated loneliness, overeating and unrealisable expectations.
Those nativity scenes still found in churches and the occasional library are part of the myth too, with their serene Mary and baby Jesus, meek and mild. The reality must have been very different: cold, dirty, unhygienic, with barnyard smells, flies, contractions, blood and fear.
But strip away the cultural and commercial accretions, and the story of Christmas is one of the most beautiful and moving that we can encounter. It is a story of the purest and most overwhelming love, that of God for his creation and for humanity whom he placed at its pinnacle. It is the story of the gospel, of the good news about Jesus Christ.
It begins with the extraordinary notion that God himself should enter the human world as a helpless infant, utterly dependent on its parents. It continues through an earthly ministry with love at its core, and culminates in a deliberate self-sacrifice of humiliation and agony as Jesus is nailed to the cross. But it ends, the Bible tells us, in resurrection and glory.
One cannot make sense of Christmas without the crucifixion and resurrection, yet perhaps Christmas is the tender and gentle part of the narrative. And the ideas that the early Christians took to the world – that there is honour in humility, strength in weakness and victory in apparent defeat – changed the world immeasurably.
Christmas … still bears a message of generosity, of sacrifice, of thinking of others, of community, of love.
The simple claim of the gospel is that in Jesus Christ, God found a way to reconcile the impossible tensions between his holiness and his love. His holiness requires that human cruelty, selfishness and greed cannot be overlooked – or otherwise justice would be meaningless. His love requires that rebellious humans be reconciled, redeemed and restored to himself. When I grasped this as a young adult several decades ago I thought an idea so beautiful and profound could not fail to be true.
I know that some people resent the notion that they are accountable to God and find the gospel story abhorrent but, for me, the triumph of mercy over judgment – born of sacrificial and abiding love – displays supreme moral beauty.
And for all the manufactured commercial sentimentality, for all the cynicism it engenders, Christmas still means something special even to those who celebrate an entirely secular holiday. For all of us, it still bears a message of generosity, of sacrifice, of thinking of others, of community, of love. It can still lift us, for a time, to a better place, a better us.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.