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Seeing Jesus in Christmas, no culture war required
The best way to maintain the status quotient in a nation-state, according to my undergraduate thesis on radical revolutionary groups in Mexico, Egypt, and Italy, is to make sure that there are is a war between groups of people that can neutralize one another.
So often, in human conflict and global economic conflict even, there are two parties that maintain a conflict in order to keep things “normal.” This happens in relationships and in politics. The War on Christmas that Fox News has fabricated is a perfect example. Arguments about what a tree should be called and what color Santa's skin were. Ugh. Jesus, of course, gets lost in the mix.
Jesus and the faith he inspires us to have changes all of us. He offers us a third way. Jesus Christ coming into the world to save it in the form of a child is exactly that third way. He’ll find that he relates to all people and then compels them toward transformation. No one gets off scot free. Everything is changed. Jesus changes everything.
Everyone gets included in his mission, but not leaves the same way. The case-in-point for me are the Shepherds and the Magi.
The shepherds are a lower-class group of people, who spend their time doing a dangerous and difficult jobs. They watch over someone else’s material wealth, they need to find pastures (in the Middle East, no less) to allow their sheep to graze. They often get accused of stealing, they can’t testify in court. Think of them like people without documentation in the U.S. or maybe Walmart workers that can’t seem to get a decent wage or benefits, or maybe low-level drug dealers watching a stash.
They are the outcasts of the world, working some crappy shift, and they are the ones that first hear the news that the baby Jesus is born. They first hear of the light and it blows up their world. They go and see it and then they tell everyone, promptly, seemingly naturally.
The myth that the shepherds might be tempted to believing is that that material acquisition—money—is the hope that we have in this world. That are money, our jobs, our education is really security and how we will get salvation. But that’s not true—those things aren’t bad, necessarily, but to wait for them as if they are the ultimate hope may not be completely true. Education and capitalism, alone, aren’t where our hope lies. The fear is not overcome when someone gets justice, as if we could wait that long for that to happen. Our hope is in the baby, in Jesus. The darkness is overcome in alliance with Jesus.
Jesus is born into poverty. He relates to those who are poor. He calls those who are poor in spirit blessed. He knows our lack and he relates to it. And he knows the solution to our lack isn’t just more stuff. In fact, Jesus could have flipped the whole Roman world upside-down and freed the Jews the way they were expecting. But he did something more than that. Political justice is shallow compared to the hope that Jesus offers us. Now, I think Jesus ultimately did teach a resistance to the Empire—in fact, he was charged with sedition against Rome. But that wasn’t his primary purpose; if justice comes as a result of our fervent following of Jesus and expression of it. I think that’s great. But it’s not the point. He’s offering something more than that.
Joy and hope are here. They are being born in Jesus. If you are poor in spirit, lonely, and weak—God is coming for you. If you are poor in mental health, depressed, anxious—don’t be afraid, God is coming. If you are bent on getting what you want, or giving away what you want, embrace the true light coming into the world. Start with Christ.
The Magi come from a different corner of the spectrum. They show up from the east, maybe Persia, and directly approach King Herod. We started the poor shepherds, and now we’re dealing with the most powerful and wealthiest people in the world. The King Sauds, the Barack Obamas, the Jeff Bezoses, the Kanye Wests. The Magi are mysterious, to be sure, but they are actually apparently identifiable. There were three gifts, so we think there were three of them, but we aren’t sure. But they were an identifiable caste, or class or people, probably from Iran. They probably didn’t come on, like, a horse, a camel, and an elephant like you see on the Christmas cards you bought to send your grandma. They probably showed up with a posse, and armed protection. Though we know a thing or two about them, they were mysteriously powerful. Think of them like the Ayatollah, an elite religious class in Iran who select the president. They were a high class of people with lots of power, in terms of wealth, education, knowledge, even astrology—these were some of the most powerful people in the world.
But it’s so easy, as we gain security with our wealth, and resources, and our excess, primarily as a way of overcoming fear itself. You have to remember that when Jesus was tempted—two of the biggest things the devil tempted him with were material wealth and political power. He was allured to get rich and powerful—and he resisted it. He voluntary did so, and it was also the result of his circumstances.
It’s possible to think that the way that Jesus meets us and offers us hope is by giving us a bunch of stuff. It’s easy to interpret the star in whatever fashion they want. The powerful in general don’t really see stars other than themselves, so it would have been really easy to miss Jesus. They are their own starlight and sunlight. We have similar perils, as relatively powerful Americans—power acquisition is really what offers most Americans hope. We might find our security in our homes, our salaries, our benefits, our graduation education, our marriages, our children, whatever.
We start kneeling to worship Jesus, we submit to one another, we admit when we’re wrong, we forgive each other, we work to do the impossible things. Despite our power, success, and privileges, we submit to each other. Jesus has power, privilege, success, fortune, but he dares to be humble. Get a good sense of your power, of your influence, of who you are. Don’t be haughty about it. You’ve got nothing to defend, the Lord’s journeying with you, born for you.
The third way we are talking about is seen so clearly in the Gospel of John. Yes, the Shepherds and the Magi are the symbols of the world’s preparation for Jesus, but John writes directly about what the world ought to prepare for: bloody redemption. John makes us known obviously: the world is dark, and Jesus is the light.
Really seriously, John puts it out there that the world is dark and in need of redemption. Nevermind the ornaments.
I think that’s why John skips the human interest part of the story; because the message of Christ’s redeeming light is too urgent to sing Christmas carols. He wants to make his point for sure. No baby because you’ll think he’s too cute. No angels, but their majesty will scare you. No shepherds because their poverty will break your heart. No Magi because their mystery will simply fascinate you—they’ll be your celebrities. No one thinks Mary was an adulteress, Joseph doesn’t get a chance to second-guess himself. No Santa Clause, no Jack Frost, no tinsel, no Grinch, no gingerbread, no evergreens, no Jimmy Stewart, no nog, no distractions. Just the incarnation of Jesus because that’s the biggest deal, the most important thing, the most fundamental aspect of our faith. Our faith. This is all you get from John. “What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out.”
The world is dark, Jesus is the light. Bottom line. It’s too easy to miss. We miss it all the time. We pour egg nog all over it. We argue about keeping “Christ” in “Christmas”—we start a culture war over it. We are afraid to acknowledge how evil the world is, but let’s go ahead and acknowledge it, but also admit how loving, how faithful, how steadfast, and how wonderful our Savior is.
Jesus alone is the sufficient for us. Two pieces of advice: heed the Great Commandment. Love God and love others. And heed the great Commission. Go and make disciples of all nations. That’s what Christmas is about.