Life can often feel like it’s happening elsewhere, to other, more interesting people. In the past week I’ve had a number of conversations which have underlined this.
For the sake of protecting confidentiality, it’s obviously unfair to mention names and too many details. But those conversations have shared an important characteristic – a sense of ‘life not really happening for/to me’. That is, a sense of feeling a bit neglected and left out of the action, of not quite ‘being seen’.
It’s an experience that’s most common among people who (on the face of it) lack the means to shape their own lives. For example, I’ve spoken to housebound people who experience marginalization and who feel they lack power, authority, and the means to shape conditions of respect around them.
I remember when I was really ill, years ago now, and I relied on benefits to support me. I was a highly educated and, in some ways, confident person, but the experience corroded my sense of place and worth. (I hate to think just how awful ‘life beneath the line’ is for people dealing with our current vile benefits regime. Indeed, in our divided society, in many cases, work itself is no longer the means to lift oneself to a place of dignity.)
However, I suspect feeling ‘unseen’ or ‘at the edges’ is an experience all of us have from time to time. It probably sounds absurd to suggest that someone as seemingly powerful as, I don’t know, Barack Obama might ever feel that life is happening elsewhere, but who knows? (Let’s leave aside whether that’s justified! My point is that one can so easily get caught up in one’s context and not see it for what it is.)
I also think that in the age of Social Media this experience is amplified – for it is so very easy, via Twitter or Facebook, to catch a glimpse of other people’s lives. Given that these glimpses are so often carefully curated insights into the ‘best’ or ‘most exciting’ parts of those lives, it can leave us feeling inadequate. When we’re on Twitter, we all run the risk of being like that bloke on The Fast Show who smugly talks about his amazing adventures, concluding by saying, ‘Which was nice.’
I am not someone who has many grounds for self-pity or for believing that ‘the real action is elsewhere’. I have one hell of a rich and creative life. But I’m as bad as anyone else for feeling left out of the action. I suspect that reflects one of the flaws in my personality – I love to feel like ‘an insider’. For example, I’m one of those people who, when I go to the theatre, I really want to be in the show. I don’t need to be on stage (no matter what my younger brother says!), just to be on the inside.
I’m not particularly proud of this trait, but it’s worth acknowledging it. It can mean that even if things are varied and fun in my life, I can look at other people’s lives and think, ‘Well, they’re having more fun’ or ‘getting to do cool things’ or ‘living a more interesting or more influential life’ and so on. It’s all rather tedious, but real nonetheless.
It’s rather like the story of the Jesuit novice who envied a colleague because the latter was clearly ace at prayer and silence and contemplation. Finally the novice spoke to the ‘expert’ contemplative and said how much he envied him. To which the contemplative said how much he envied the novice back. Why? Because the novice was so committed to social action and engagement and the contemplative wished he found it as easy to be with people. So often ‘the world’, ‘the action’ and ‘the life’ can seem to be going on other people’s glamorous, or powerful or busy or, frankly, different lives.
This phenomenon is one reason we all need Christmas. For the ‘power’ of Christmas – as symbol, story, narrative, myth (I really don’t care if the first nativity happened ‘exactly’ like the Gospel record) – lies in its reminder of The Divine’s/God’s disinterest in glamour, cool and position. It reminds us that God, as ultimate Other, does not need all the things many of us think are fundamental, but are actually props for our vanity, our position, and even our desire to serve the institution (by, e.g., extending its reach or making it better, bigger, cooler, more impressive and so on).
Where is Christmas happening? Clearly, the easy answer is everywhere. Everywhere the tinsel goes up, and there are songs of good cheer and so on. Those of us who are religious need to remember that we don’t ‘own’ Christmas. Or perhaps Christmas happens most clearly among those who believe in the Christ, who gather to share his story and are united in belief and liturgy. It’s not my job to put limits on where Christmas can and does happen.
However, the Bible narratives offer some powerful suggestions that undercut many of our easy assumptions. Christmas powerfully undermines our vain-glorious pictures of what’s important and significant in the world and our lives.
Jesus Christ – as icon of God – is not born in a temple or palace, among kings and emperors and hierophants. He is not born at the heart of a metropolis or political centre. His place of birth is no Rome or Jerusalem, but a no-note town that barely retains the rumours of a once great king. There is no glamour or cool, just a stable and peasants for parents. One of the parents isn’t even – on some readings of the Biblical text - the ‘birth’ parent.
The eyes of the world are not upon Jesus, no reporters waiting at the door, waiting for a quote from a proud mum or dad. There are just shepherds. Not the romantic figures of Victorian sentiment, but unrighteous men and women who plied their trade in lonely hills far away from the rituals that might make them pure and righteous.
This Icon of God, Jesus, was, as the song has it, ‘a saviour without safety’, without any means of self-defence, but the effects that a baby can have on stony hearts. He was placed into the hands of humans as adequate and inadequate as any of us. He was dependent, open to abuse and neglect and, yet, calling forth love.
We live in an age of carefully curated lives, where so many of us calculate how best we can make an impact, can get ahead, can ensure our voices are heard. And, damn it, some voices should be heard, though probably not the ones who get the most ‘airtime’.
We live in an age of shiny things, where – understandably – even as Christians we want to be seen in the market places and public square. (And I’m clear that faith voices have much to contribute beyond safe ‘holy huddles’.)
We live in an age where it can feel like all that is good is happening in the palaces and modern temples of money and glamour and power. And anyone can feel left out or unseen.
But I sense God is about other things.
Where is Christmas happening this year? Probably in some neglected, uncomfortable part of the estate on which you (or should I say ‘I’) live, without much attention or seeming value. Right there, good news will be happening, a commitment to love and act for the good by people who seem to be nobodies to those whose attention is fixed elsewhere,
Where is Christmas happening this year? Perhaps, in the passion and pain, but unconquerable courage of LGBT people in Africa, people whose voices are as marginalized as Christ’s, people who are being made to bleed without safety and justice.
Where is Christmas happening this year? Among those who this society and others treat as unrighteous, as outcasts, and as the nobodies who are told never to expect glory or wonder or joy. Perhaps, Christmas is happening in the midst of those seeking refuse and asylum and those taking the risk of granting it. Perhaps.
Perhaps, we cannot quite say, under the conditions our society finds itself living through, where Christmas will be happening.
However, the Nativity is a reminder that if Christmas – or life or whatever – is happening ‘elsewhere’ it is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of glamorous, powerful and influential lives.
Christmas is not in the homes of those who insulate themselves from the terror, pain and exposure of reality, who create simulacra of Christmas for the benefit of telling themselves they are the special or honoured ones.
The elsewhere of Christmas is all around us, in the world we choose not to see, that won’t be dressed up in an ironic Christmas jumper and made to look nice. And in that otherness God is alive and seen by those with eyes to see. And from those places God comes to tear the palaces and the temples of our, of my, easy comfort and exploitation. God’s star points us not towards position, glitz or status, but into a more fearful glory.