In Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, an Angel drops by the fields around Bethlehem with a rather startling news-break for the Shepherds who worked there. “Do not be afraid,” says the Angel, “for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ, the Lord.” Now, it’s a marvellous scene isn’t it, a scene recreated a thousand times over every Christmas. Shepherds, angels, bright lights, heavenly choirs, wise men from the east . . . hang on, there aren’t any wise men in Luke’s story! . . . but anyway. It is clear that most of us like the story. We must do, because we keep telling it at a thousands “carols by candlelight” events all over the country.
Now I reckon that’s a line you’ll get everywhere you turn today. “A saviour is born. So what? Why would I need a Saviour?” Many of us live in Saviour-free zones, these days, I think. Especially if we are middle-class. For middle-class people are raised by their apparently successful parents to believe that the successful life is the self-made life. “It’s up to you,” they tell us, “if you don’t make a go of life it will be nobody’s fault but your own. So study hard, and work hard; save your cash and be careful with it and the good life will be yours.” A few years ago another friend of mine, a psychologist, gave me a book with the curious title: If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The book was a clear message from him to me, in the psycho-babble that characterizes our time: “You don’t need a Saviour; saviours are bad; they encourage dependency. It’s only when you kill off your personal saviours that you’ll finally give yourself a chance at the good life.”
Now, I reckon there’s a little bit of truth in that, but not a great deal of truth. I don’t doubt that all of us responsible for our own lives. That is a deeply Jewish and Christian notion. Neither do I doubt that many of us avoid accepting such responsibility by shifting the blame for our misfortunes to others. Again, in Jewish and Christian thought, such blame-shifting is seen as a very big problem. But to then conclude that each of us, alone, are capable of both imagining the good life and then making it come to pass, is nothing less than sheer fantasy. The paradox of the “Kill the Buddha” book, and all the other self-help therapies on the New-Age shelf at your local bookstore, is that the writer is himself posing as a Saviour, that is, as someone who can help his readers in a way that they, alone, and left to their own devices, cannot.
To my way of thinking, Jesus is a Saviour precisely because he provides us with the spiritual vision and strength do that which we cannot, I repeat, cannot do for ourselves. Now the very person who, at Uni, told me that she didn’t need a Saviour was, I think, bound up in all kinds of chains. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see they were there. But they were there nevertheless. O yes, they were there. There were the chains of the beauty-myth. You know, “In order to exist, to be worthy to exist, I must look slim, trim and terrific.” There were the chains of the nuclear-family myth: “I must have a man and some kids in order to be worthwhile in life, to fight against the fear that I shall cease to be”. And there were the chains of the status myth: “I must have a big house and successful professional career in order to be really worthwhile, to register my value in the eyes of my friends.” I could go on, but I won’t.
What I want to say is this: that Jesus is not only a Saviour, he is THE Saviour. That is, he can do for us what nobody else, not even our therapist or the Buddha, is able to do: to release us from the fear that lies beneath every other fear and every other anxiety that there is: the fear of death. You see Jesus arrived in a time and place that, in many ways, was plagued by the same fears and sins as our own. People believed that they had been put on the earth to assure the future of their families. They worked hard to leave their children in a better condition, money and status-wise, than their own parents had left them. The fear that this might not be so drove them to compete with everyone else, with other families, for an ever-larger slice of the limited resources bequeathed in creation. Underneath it all, of course, was the fear that we may cease to be. People feared that if their families fell into poverty and ruin, they might well die out. Not even the memory of a name would be left as a witness to having ever existed. Such fears run deep in all of us, any anthropologist will tell you that. They dominate our own lives as much as they dominated the lives of our ancient forebears.
What Jesus said to the people of his own time and place, and would also say to us today, is this: that there is no need to fear death. Death is not something that troubles God. Trust in God and he will give you life even if you die. Now listen carefully, lest you get the impression that Jesus was interested only in physical, biological death. He was not, and I am not. Jesus spoke, rather of the many deaths we must face as a part of life, the deaths which tell us, in fact, that life can never entirely be something of our own making or genius. The slow dying of our young, fit bodies. The diseases that limit what we can do to one degree or another. The loss of a job. The loss of a friend. Disappointment in love or career. The fact that our children may not care to do what we think they ought to do. Not being able to have children. Or whatever. According to Jesus, all these things are a sign in the world that we are not the masters of our own destinies, that we cannot accomplish the good life out of our own resources, nor can we even imagine what it might be like. Jesus saves us by helping us to see that life comes when we are able to both accept and embrace the fact of death. We are not immortal souls, no matter what the many new age sages might say. We are mortal. We will die.
But the good news is this. If we can die to our desire to make a way for ourselves in the world, if we can let go of our need to keep up appearances and wear the socially-determined badges of status and success, if we can trust not in these human artefacts of success and happiness but in God, then God will grant us life, life in all its fullness. Let me quote to you from a passage later in Luke, a passage which goes to the heart of how Jesus would save us:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (that is, their socially-constructed desires) and take up their cross daily and follow me. For the one who wants to preserve his life will lose it, and the one who wants to lose his life for my sake will save it. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world but lose their very selves in the process?Christ, you see, lived a life designed to please no-one else but God his Father. He knew that God loved him, and that was enough. Because of that single fact, he was then able to give away the mad rush to get ahead in the world. The assurance of God’s love freed him. Instead, Jesus spent his time and energy in works of prayer and compassion. Freed from the concern to please everyone else, he was able to please his Father God, to live as though people mattered - not competing against them (as in a market economy), but giving himself to them, as a gift without need of return. In the cross and the resurrection of Christ, we therefore see both the paradoxical logic and the message of his life writ large: “It you will die with me, you will also live with me. If you will let go, God will give you all things.”
At Christmastime the Christ is born to us, a Saviour. Let me gently suggest that despite all appearances to the contrary, and despite the so-called wisdom of the self-help gurus, we might all need a Saviour after all!