How I eagerly looked forward to Christmas during my childhood! Not so much for the gifts, for there were few, but more so to attend the celebration of the mass which always provided a heavenly feeling on Christmas morn and afterwards feasting on the ham, the great cake, English apples which then were available in Barbados only at this time of year, sorrel with a wee bit of port wine, and other seasonal treats.
But, more than anything else, I particularly looked forward to the delightful experience of immersing myself, through the power of imagination, into the fairy tale-type world, as traditionally presented to us, that provided the setting for the Christmas story. I would visualize, for example, the elves busy in their workshop on the North Pole putting the finishing touches on gifts to be delivered by jolly old Santa Claus on his whirlwind around-the-world journey on Christmas Eve, travelling by reindeer-powered sleigh piloted by red-nosed Rudolph.
I would stay up late many a Christmas eve night, as my great-grandmother was busy completing her baking and other last minute preparations, hoping to get a glimpse of the jolly old fellow in his red suit as he touched down to visit homes in my rural St Philip neighbourhood, nestled amid the canefields, and to hear his loud, infectious, trademark laugh of “ho ho ho”. But, for some unexplained reason, Santa somehow always proved elusive. I was left to wonder on quite a few occasions whether my exclusion had been because he had been informed that I had been naughty rather than nice during the past year.
One Christmas Eve night, overwhelmed by frustration and on the brink of tears, I asked my great-grandmother to explain why Santa never seemed to stop at our house. I was about seven or eight. “He doesn’t visit anybody else’s either,” she replied with a brutal frankness, revealing, much to my shock and surprise, that Santa Claus was a mere myth — a character of fiction — and that in my particular case, she and Pa, my great-grandfather, were the real Santas. She then went into the bedroom and promptly came back out with my gift, rather than leave it in the living room for me to discover as was previously the case.
Today, as a middle-aged adult, I am still fascinated by Christmas — in fact, a whole lot more — but for a fundamentally different reason. It comes from the discovery of the serious business which Christmas is really all about. The words of the Apostle Paul beautifully sums up the transformation of my understanding and perspective. To quote the 13th chapter, 11th verse of his first letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
For me, as a high Catholic Anglican committed to the cause of social justice, what is particularly exciting and comforting about the Christmas story, is the underpinning theology with its reassuring message of hope of inevitable deliverance, freedom and victory over adversity and oppression. This theological position, powerfully articulated, for example, in the Book of Isaiah, the Old Testament’s greatest and most influential prophet, speaks with confidence of a better tomorrow amid prevailing instances of doom.
Isaiah, who lived in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE when the Jewish nation was under the oppression of the brutal Assyrian empire, often prefaced his revelations with the words “In the days to come”, underscoring his optimism and confidence in the certainty of survival and better days ahead because Almighty God, YHWH, stands on the side of the oppressed. Isaiah is closely associated with Christmas because his prophecies foretold the earthly coming of the Jesus The Christ, God in human form, roughly 700 years before its actual occurrence.
The four week period on the church calendar leading up to Christmas is known as Advent, and designated as a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of the Christ through acknowledgement and repentance of one’s shortcomings and receipt of the blessing of divine forgiveness. Last Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete (Latin for rejoice) Sunday, the appointed Old Testament reading was taken from Isaiah 61. A familiar reading at this time, it is anchored in the themes of delivery from oppression, and the dispensation of freedom and justice.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Isaiah 61: 1-3.
Isaiah’s influence has been so profound, he is associated with the emergence of a school of thought known as the Isaiah Movement which is closely connected with Jesus. Evidence is seen throughout the New Testament, starting with Mary, the pregnant mother of Jesus, who speaks on the themes of deliverance, liberation, and justice in her well-known hymn of praise known as the Magnificat.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1: 51-53.
Later, Jesus himself read from Isaiah 61, as he was in the synagogue, and confirmed that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. Verse 20 of Chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel states: “Then he rolled up the scroll (with the Book of Isaiah), gave it back to attendant an sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to tell them: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled as you heard it being read.”
For many Barbadians, Christmas 2017 is perhaps the bleakest in living memory. The burdensome fiscal policies of the incumbent Freundel Stuart regime have taken the joy out of the season. Many people do not have sufficient money to afford the basics for themselves, far less buy gifts for friends and loved ones. Instead of being discouraged by the prevailing gloom, Christmas 2017 can have special meaning for us if we focus on the message of deliverance, justice and better days to come. The message applies to all seasons.
However, we must resolve, with God’s help, to become firm craftsmen of our fate instead of allowing ourselves to being just helpless victims of the prevailing circumstances. With the dawn of the new year, the much anticipated date of the next general election will draw closer and closer with each passing day. Our collective decision to make is whether we want to continue having more of the same — increased pauperization with falling standards of living — or a chance to embrace the opportunity to chart a new path towards a better future.
Barbados can rise from the ashes. However, it is in our hands to decide and the next general election provides the opportunity. God wants the best for us as his people but we too must want the same for ourselves for it to happen. May the hope of Christmas empower us and the words of Isaiah inspire us to choose wisely! Whatever you do, have a blessed Christmas!