This tinsel thing we do in late December is not and never has been about the Jewish baby whose mom magnified the Lord with hopes of bringing down the rich and mighty. That baby was born in June, utterly unfit for the ornamental purposes that Empire demands. Empire likes religion to help dangle the promise of wealth and privilege in exchange for complicity. Priests and preaches are usually happy to rent themselves cheap, quick to drop the Jewish Justice Jesus in favor of Christological abstractions. This is not a new political strategy. We do Christmas in December to help the abstracted christ eclipse Rex the Sun God. The bishops even came up with a virgin birth to match all the other invented gods of the day. Constantine chuckled at the priests who thought they were manipulating him. Our current potentate plays an ancient transaction, throwing a few meaningless gestures towards supplicant clergy. Cheap tricks that always work; but not for long.
Christmas was a late deviation from the Jesus story, which always focused elsewhere. It took as proof that something serious was atilt in the order of power the quiet thriving of the most curious sprout from the root of David, the odd Jewish sect that spread across the tough seaport towns of the Mediterranean—the church. For nearly 30 decades the band of deviate Jews that sounded a lot like wanna-be Greeks persisted in what they called The Way. The people called Christians were known by their love for each other and constant creative attention to the needs of the widows, orphans and other disregarded ones.
By the time Constantine pasted Christmas onto the mid-winter holiday traditionally honoring Rex the Sun God, that little band had acquired not just priests, but bishops, councils, theologians and drummers drumming—the whole accoutrement of theological lapdog of Empire. It would be centuries more before we invented the Christmas tree (thanks to my Nordic people) and Jolly Santa (thanks to Coke). I don’t know how we devolved to 14-foot inflatable plastic figures for the lawn entirely abstracted from any meaning of any kind even a little bit. Once you move the birthday anything can happen.
One Christmas eve in Belmont the Baptists were tired of being outclassed by the Catholics with their massively successful midnight service of handbells and fragrant candles. The preacher organized his own darn service, so there we were, with four-year old Lauren scribbling away on the pew awaiting Christmas the next morning. The preacher only had one sermon, so with relentless predictability he went with it. He ignored the Angles’ promise to be not afraid. He wanted us very afraid, reminding us that Jesus tied for our sins. But even a preacher has to stop to breath in. At such a time church can be very quiet. She asked in clear child’s voice, “He died?!?!”
Sometimes very powerful questions make it through the Christmas din. That inconvenient Jewish kid is persistent, lurking on the edges of the Wal-Mart version of the story. Why did Mary go on and on about the rich falling down? Why did Herod try and kill him? Why the stories of him refusing the privileges of power when offered by Satan again and again, right up until his arrest at the end of his brief three-year prophetic run? Why did the people follow him into the wilderness? Why did he give away everything for free? Why did the wise and wealthy who listened carefully to him walk away in tears clinging to their barns and baubles? And what on earth are we to make of the cabal of priests and pirates who killed him as one more leftist irritant?
What does that have to do with hot mess of a culture? Some morn the end of the Christendom, but I’m glad for it. Back to Jesus! Some lament the end of our democratic-industrial-military-techno complex responsible for the melting planet and dumbing screens. Back to Jesus! But not the one in the made-up plastic manger. I mean the one in the manger that scared Herod and all his priestly suck-ups.
Last night we celebrated Christmas Eve in Davis Chapel on the campus of Baptist Hospital. We read the old stories and sang the old songs a few hundred feet from 540 very ill people being cared for by a couple of thousand healing heroines. Gunshots and overdoses in the ED. Eight on suicide watch, impossible to leave alone. And 71 kids in the NICU, a really big manger. Hard to miss the point; God is not done. Not with me, you, us or the whole created shebang. Not yet. Not yet.
Shhh. Don’t tell Wal-mart, Amazon or what’s his name in Mar A Largo.
“Do not be afraid,” said—and still say–the angels among us. Rejoice! But how do you tell the angels from those playing the angles? Read the story for yourself without the lens of empire.
God so loved this place that he sent a little Jewish boy to an improbably insignificant border town into a family so compromised they didn’t even know who the father was for sure.
So does hope come and come again and yet again. So is marked The Way worth walking even now.
I think I will rejoice.