Frantically last-minute Christmas shopping, I was arrested by a sign in a shop window: “Don’t forget yourself this Christmas.” It struck me as a neat expression of almost everything that is wrong with contemporary thought. For all the ghastly commercialisation of the season, the custom of giving gifts retains some crypto-realisation of the significance of the Christmas and Epiphany season; that love desires to give something to others, to share.
Even if the deeper significance of God giving us the gift of his Son has been obscured for many, a season of goodwill can continue to enrich humankind. But not if any gift given must be concomitant with affirming and enriching myself. Unless I forget myself I am not redeemed.
The most sentimental of Christmases can still point to the truth about redemption, which is not some abstract theological category but the aching question at the heart of the human person, who while alienated from the fullness of God’s love also remains alienated from true self-realisation.
A desire for a season of peace and rest, of the restoration of community, imbued with folk memory of the sacred, collides with an equally strong pull towards indulgence, excess, envy and memory of loss.
We confront the essential human struggle, trapped between those holier desires for a life beyond the traction of sin and fear that in forgetting myself, in giving control away, I would cease to be myself.
Redemption is the reconciliation of the opposing forces in me; the congruence of my desire for true wholeness and transcendence with God’s own vision for my wholeness.
It is the contiguity of my own inability to produce the grace and truth I need with God’s gratuitous gift of them, healing and lifting me to his heart. Redemption is the answer to St Paul’s lament in Romans that though he knows how he wishes to act in conformity with this better self, he finds he lives in a “body of death” which betrays and frustrates him. “Who will save me from this body of death?” is his cry. The answer is the baby in a manger who will grow up and give his body on a cross.
There is a great grace in feeling this alienation from one’s true self if it engenders the humility to seek it from without, to accept one’s existential need for redemption.
The remedy for my sin and alienation from a “true” self which I glimpse but cannot inhabit, does not lie in efforts at self-improvement or better regulation of my psyche to become loveable. It comes as the gift of the God of love. The tender babe in the manger teaches me that love always involves humility, risk, vulnerability and trust. In the humility of God Himself I must learn the secret that one becomes fully human by receiving and depending.
So do forget yourself this Christmastide. This is not the joyless attitude it sounds to contemporary ears. It is only possible if your sense of dignity is predicated on being loved by the King of Angels. This dignity is not the same as feeling God-like; it will not make you omnipotent, omniscient, impeccable or impassible, but it is peaceful, God-given. So that when you too find no safe lodging in the full-up, confident, successful city of contemporary man, when you are cowed by threats of power and cruelty or lying with beasts in the midden of sin, trust that you are never more nearly his child, he who forgot his glory to redeem you by becoming Mary’s little one.
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