Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Festive Fear

Christmas comes but once a year, thank the Lord (quite literally, I suppose).

However, as an atheist, I must confess to feeling the occasional twinge of jealousy. Pious Christians can enjoy the festive season in its fullest sense, immersed in their implacable belief in the nativity story and the truth of the incarnation, whereas I am just stuck with Christmas cake and Hollywood blockbusters on TV.

Funnily enough, I met one such devout fellow near my house last week. He handed me a leaflet inviting me to celebrate Christmas at a huge gathering being held at Bung Karno stadium, a venue often used for these mass, US-style acts of Christian worship. According to the leaflet, someone called Israel Houghton from Texas, presumably from one of America’s mega-churches, was topping the bill. It did not actually say whether Mr. Houghton would be touching worshippers on the forehead and making them go all wobbly and fall over backward, but I suspected that speaking in tongues would be on the agenda.

My leaflet-carrying acquaintance then tried a touch of proselytizing and told me that whereas Muslims like to pray to cold, inanimate stone, Jesus was living and breathing and very much alive inside him. He did actually have a point in this respect as Christianity does indeed differ from the world’s other main religions in its concept of the incarnation.

Jews, Muslims and deists believe in a transcendent God that is immutably perfect and outside of the physical world. Hindus and Confucians, on the other hand, believe in immanence; the idea that God is a part of this world and all around us. What makes Christian metaphysics unique is that the faithful believe that God is wholly transcendent and yet, at one moment only, became immanent in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it is this unique duality that accounted for my new friend’s shiny-eyed ebullience.

I thanked the urban missionary and we parted ways, he absolutely assured in his faith, and I blanketed in a familiar feeling of unease and trepidation. What a feeling it must be to have such certainty in one’s life.

Freud said that devout believers are safeguarded to a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses. According to the good Viennese doctor, “Their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

As a nonbeliever, however, I prefer to see the existential void in more Sartre-esque terms. The absence of a higher plan or purpose does not render life meaningless but rather empowers us with freedom and makes our choices even more vital.

Reveling in the power of such self-determination, I decided to go shopping, the worship of money being as important to the festival of Christmas as that of Jesus, you understand. Thankfully, I did not have to venture far as Pejaten Village Plaza recently opened close to Metro Towers. I scoured the crowded mall for Santa but could not find the rotund reprobate anywhere. Perhaps kids these days, metabolisms accelerated by junk food and the Internet, prefer to cut out the middleman and go straight to the presents.

“Ho, Ho, Ho, and what would you like for Christmas, son?”

“Shut up and give me the PlayStation beard face, I haven’t got all day.”

Alas, queues for consumer durables and Yuletide gifts were large at the inappropriately named Village Plaza.

Down at the Village though, Santa had gone AWOL. But perhaps I should not be too disappointed at not finding a beaming, avuncular Father Christmas in a Jakarta shopping plaza. I would probably have similar trouble trying to locate three wise men and a virgin on the streets of my hometown in Britain.

Hopefully, the festive season will be peaceful and terrorist-free across Indonesia this year. In the wake of the 2000 church bombings and the recent Mumbai chaos, the government is taking no chances. Detachment 88, an antiterrorism unit funded by the United States and Australia, was recently seen on TV performing practice exercises. Balaclava-clad policeman abseiled down the side of a hotel in Bandung in preparation for the next terror outrage. That is all well and good but I would have preferred to see them going in down the chimney. Crack Santa division: always ready for action.

Can I take this opportunity to wish a merry Yuletide midwinter solstice to one and all? I hope that you manage to get away for a few days of rest and relaxation. Spare a thought for those celebrating in cold countries trapped indoors for days on end with their families. What a fate. As some bright spark once said, “Christmas is a time when you get homesick, even when you’re home.”