The country is in the throes of an economic recession but it is questionable whether in the light of this more people have turned to God. Secularism is as high as ever. Those who can party and shop to the hilt will and many who cannot will envy those who do. A few may accept their humble state, like the humble state of the infant babe of Bethlehem, and perceive for the first time the true meaning of Christmas.
One of those meanings is that in the incarnation, God was ‘othering’ i.e. He became other than Himself. He did not choose to be an angel nor merely assume the trappings of humanity. He became fully human. In Jesus, God desired and sought out human companionship. As a famous liturgist put it, Christmas implies “God’s hunger for human companions”. We see this in babies: they cry when left or wake up alone; they stop crying when they see the face of the other who is willing to pick them up and hold them close to their breast or cheek to cheek, not only family members, but any loving other.
As God became other for us in Jesus, we must become other for the sake of others. There is something about Christmas that brings out the best in most of us, if only for the season. It is as if the season makes us other for the sake of others: we prepare and deliver hampers for the needy; we help the elderly decorate their homes; we feel impelled to go to church; and try again at healing broken relationships.
Of course, there is the other part of ourselves that doesn’t want us to be other than ourselves, the proverbial Scrooge in us that bemoans the “bah hambugs” of Christmas, or the Herod in us that sees others as threatening. This existential pessimism is what we call sin—a refusal to be open to others, a preference for a self-enclosed contentment which is a far cry from joy.
The Christmas story mentions many people moving beyond themselves for the sake of Mary and Joseph—the shepherds who moved beyond themselves to find out about this sign; the innkeeper who moved beyond himself to find them lodging in the stable; the curious neighbours who must have passed by offering help, for the birth of a baby was never a private affair in ancient Mediterranean society; not to mention the animals, not in the scriptures but basic human nature and common sense thought they should be there too.
This othering of God in Jesus eliciting othering in others must continue today. There are so many areas of national life urging us to move beyond ourselves, and to become other for the sake of others: providing legal aid for those in the Aripo Detention Centre; finding homes for street children; taxing our minds to create liturgies for children with special needs like autism; and becoming more green-conscious for the sake of the environment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the late German theologian, once described Jesus as “a man for others”. We too need, as a permanent Christian commitment, to become men and women for others. Merry Christmas!