Did you ever wish life was more simple? I once read a book titled “Simplify Your Life”. The sub-heading was “100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter”. The book gave helpful advice on how to make life easier, simpler and more fulfilling. The last section of the book, the section entitled “Hard-Core Simplicity”, is perhaps the most challenging. It proposes solutions such as “get rid of your phone”, “get rid of your cars” and “stop making the bed.”
How well does the word “simplicity” define our lives? Not very well, I would imagine. Perhaps the only solution is to become a monk or a nun. A few years ago I asked a monk at the community of which I am an Associate, what did he like about being a monk? I expected him to say that it meant that he could be closer to God. Instead he replied: “I like being a monk because it means I don’t have to pay income tax.”
A life of simplicity has its attractions, apart from not paying income tax – it means living in an uncluttered way, which helps you to focus on the things that really matter. Well, what has this to do with Christmas? Christmas offers us two versions of itself. The first one is the one we all recognise: shopping, cooking, organising family get togethers, wrapping presents, writing and sending cards. It is a time with barely a moment to sit still and reflect.
The other version of Christmas is often overshadowed by the first: this other version of Christmas is the celebration of a simple yet profound event – the coming of the Christ child into our world. What is amazing, astounding even, is the manner of his coming: as a baby, as a helpless infant, into the humble setting of the manger in Bethlehem. For God, who is all powerful, all knowing, all seeing – that he should come to us in this way, in such simplicity! What are we to make of it?
To answer this question we need to see how God as man lived out the experience of his human life. We begin with the birth, also known as the Incarnation – God takes on and inhabits our human flesh. He doesn’t come to us fully formed as an adult, but begins where we begin – in the womb. He will know life as we know it. From his mother and father he will learn love.
Jesus is raised within a family – he learns his father’s craft as a carpenter. He is a devout child who reads the Scriptures and who is blessed and given gifts that will enable him to undertake and fulfill his mission to the world. That mission, which changed the course of human history, lasted for only three years. No one before or since has made such a lasting impact in such a short space of time.
At the end of his human life, when he is finally arrested, tried and executed for blasphemy, it seems as though his mission has ended in failure. But there was more: Jesus was raised from the dead, proving that death was not the end, but a new beginning. And if that is true for Jesus then it is true for us. Being a Christian is about new beginnings.
Returning to the manger in Bethlehem – God comes to us a baby. Babies are actually rather simple creatures – they need to be fed, and clothed, and kept warm and, above all, to be loved. If they are unhappy they show it without hesitation. And a baby’s smile is the best thing in the world. Normally serious and studious adults are known to undergo a complete personality change when babies are around. A baby has the ability to light up our souls. Which is exactly what Jesus does. He lights up our souls and he does it, in the beginning, quite simply by being a baby.
By being born in this way, God is placing himself in our hands; literally, into the hands of Mary. She carries a responsibility which seems to us impossible. Yet in her humble acceptance of what needs to be done she simply gets on with the job, as any mother would.
I wonder why God trusts us in this way? I think it is because he wants us to know him in a close and intimate way – as a parent knows its child. Although he is Father to us, for a little while we will become Father and Mother to him. In coming among us he is allowing us to see and know and love him. It is simple really. And as a parent no longer lives only for him or herself but for their children, so will we no longer live just for ourselves but for God who has come to us. It is a two-way relationship. We learn from each other how to give and how to receive.
Religion can sometimes appear terribly deep and complicated, but it is really quite simple. In fact, I would say that a spirit of simplicity is a pre-requisite to being a follower of Christ. It’s the antidote to a life which can, at times, seem too complicated, frantic, or demanding.
If you don’t believe me, then gaze upon at the baby in the manger. What do you see? The child who will light up your soul, who will teach you the meaning of life, in all its wonder, awe and simplicity.
Love, joy and peace this Christmas.