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Christmas for Adults: When Jesus Isn’t the Reason for the Season

 

A pdf version of this commentary can be read and printed here.

 

Over the years, when the perennial “holiday” season rolls around in dark December, I’m increasingly aware of this broad cultural phenomenon that has little to do with any one of the numerous religious observances associated with this time of year. For those of us “of a certain age,” it leaves me wondering in my maturity if there remains any meaningful, central message?

There was a time when Christmas was still predominantly Christ’s Mass. I can still vividly recall a mid-20th century childhood memory of a Christmas Eve midnight service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan; where my father was shepherd to that flock.  Each year, after the recessional hymn, “Joy to the World,” was joyfully sung by choir and congregation, the sanctuary lights would dim, everyone would drop to their knees and sing in a hushed tone, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright …”

Then, on this particular Christmas Eve, I remember us all quietly walking out of the church to see the moonlight illuminating a carpet of fresh fallen snow.  It seemed magical, and I almost muttered out loud, “I believe!”

Now, in the Winter of our Covid discontent, I find myself watching the same news over and over again on the television about a raging pandemic, a recalcitrant Congress, and the cyber-bombing of our government’s infrastructure by a foreign actor; interrupted only by the endless, repetitious stream of the same commercials; to the extent I no longer need to look at the TV screen.

Then, momentarily distracted, I hear a lilting soprano’s voice wafting through the room, singing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

I turn to look at the screen and there’s the frightened face of a trembling mutt huddled in a snowstorm. It’s a commercial, soliciting donations for the SPCA.

And I think to myself, where’s the baby in the manger, the lowing cattle, the adoring mother and father, the rejoicing shepherds and wise astrologers from the East bearing gifts?  My holy nativity tale has been usurped and subsumed in a cultural holiday that has long ago wandered far from that childhood memory of long ago.

Jesus, in fact, is no longer the reason for the season. But the reason this is so extends far beyond the cultural and commercial contamination of a quaint old tale.

For anyone who still gives any credence to scriptural authority in the Christian faith tradition, it’s important to remember a few things. Only two of the four canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke) include any mention of Jesus’ birth. Neither Mark (the earliest gospel) and John (the latest gospel) could give a hoot; having no theological interest in constructing such a fanciful, imaginary tale.

Furthermore, as Robert Miller summarizes in his book, “Born Divine: The Birth of Jesus and Other Sons of God,” Jesus was not born in a stable, wise men from the east did not offer exorbitant gifts that would have been useless, and his mother was not a virgin when he was born. Since Joseph was not the father, Mary had some explaining to do.  And Matthew’s story of Herod’s plot to retain power by slaughtering all male infants under the age of two may not be suitable for younger audiences …  All of which once again makes one wonder what meaning can be found in that line from another lovely carol: “The hopes and dreams of all the years, are met in thee tonight …?”

I’ve always found the Song of Mary in Luke’s first chapter to not only be his theological introduction to the birth of Jesus, but his central message of his gospel, as well (Lk. 1:46-55).

“… The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear (revere) him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Luke’s subversive message is a handmaid’s tale, delivered by a pregnant peasant woman that directly challenges, refutes and reverses the structures of human power, one over another. The importance of claiming Jesus’ “divinity” is only necessitated by the need to equally counter that of Caesar’s demi-god status.

As Robert Miller again points out, the Empire would celebrate the emperor’s birthday, specifically announcing it was “good news” for the world that such a savior had come. Hence, juxtaposed in Luke’s imaginary tale, we have the angelic messenger announce to the lowest caste in society (the shepherds), “I bring you good news of great joy, which is to benefit the whole nation. Today in the city of David, your Savior is born, who is the Anointed (the ‘Christ’), The Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

In the ancient world, politics and religion were intertwined, and all about power ( The Synonomy of Politics and Religion). Jesus, and all he would come to represent by his life and teachings, represents the advent-coming of this alternative power. He is the first, but not meant to be the last. Our Christmas? It too can be a holy night. How?

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

“The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman. From The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985) *

And so, I return to the sweet memory of a childhood belief, with the deeper understanding of a Christmas for adults. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season. We are. There are still the mighty that need to be removed from their throne of arrogance. And the poor and needy lifted up. And the wise?

They will not come with useless gifts from the East this year; but with a vaccine from a Pfizer plant in (of all places) Kalamazoo. And the food bank, or maybe even the seat of power in Washington; with a pandemic relief package for the starving and those in need of shelter.

And lastly, with the re-reading of a quaint mythic tale in which the whole world might believe.

 

© 2020 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

*African American theologian Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 Thurman cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated, interfaith religious congregation in the United States.

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