Christmas is my favorite time of the year, and my boys could tell you how much I always want to get to good carol services. It’s the amazing Christmas narratives that I love so much. I am a Christian and what Christmas means to me is this: In Christ, God hit the streets. Immanuel means God with us.
It’s not just that God came, but how God came. It wasn’t accidental that the savior of the world was born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were literally homeless at the time of his birth. And soon Jesus and his family were made refugees and had to flee their country because the most powerful political ruler around the Christ child felt very threatened by his coming.
At least King Herod got the fact that his political power would indeed be undermined by the coming of Jesus and the new kingdom he would bring. It seems many of our politicians don’t have a clue as to what the coming of Christmas means for them, judging by the horrible things some of them are saying about the poor, vulnerable, homeless, and refugees all around us today. They just don’t get it. In listening to the ugly and hateful rhetoric in the debates and media soundbites during this special season, I have been struck by how “un-Christmas” even “anti-Christmas” these politicians sound.
It was that poor homeless young mother who perhaps best understood the meaning of the one she carried in her womb. In Mary’s song of praise, her prayer, her Magnificat, Jesus mother said:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
This is not the talk of charity and giving Christmas toys and turkeys to the less fortunate. The language of Mary is the narrative of revolution and redistribution, two words that the powers that be just hate. And while the revolution that Christ brings is not violent, it is nonetheless completely transformational. Mary got it.
Herod did too. The nearest political ruler to the birth of Christ immediately saw the possible implications for him.
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.” (Matthew 2:3-4)
Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was “frightened” or “disturbed” or “worried” or “troubled” or “terrified” as different gospel translations report.
Why? Because the closest political ruler to Jesus at the time of his birth believed Jesus could become a threat to his power. Herod asked all the people who might know, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” The king then called the now famous wise men, who were traveling from the East to see the child, in for a meeting with him at the palace where he tried to manipulate them to come back and tell him where they had found the child, “so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Most of the stories about the three wise men focus on the gifts they presented to the Christ child when they ultimately found him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our re-telling the story often doesn’t focus so much on the political threat Jesus posed to political power when he was born. And we talk even less about what happened when the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they found Jesus. In another dream, Joseph was told to quickly leave the country with his new family, into Egypt where they would stay until King Herod died. “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So Jesus became a refugee fleeing political power.
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
To protect himself, Herod killed all the baby boys, hoping to kill Jesus, in what our tradition calls the “Massacre of the Innocents,” which is too often how political power reacts when it is threatened. Innocents are often threatened by political power as are many today in the most recent rhetoric of our own political candidates in their attacks on immigrants, refugees, people of other religions, all the “others” who are not like “us” and even the children who are said to threaten us. One candidate literally says we should “take out” and kill the children of “terrorists.” Unbelievable. Perhaps a Christmas Day firing squad?
But unlike the political rulers, the coming of Christ is such wonderful news for the rest of the world, especially those who feel left out. The narratives we love to sing are so full of good news. While singing “O Holy Night” at the National Cathedral this week, I could hardly believe the power of the words.
“O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
….Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.”
Perhaps we should sing that during the next presidential debate. I especially love the language of Isaiah 9:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
… For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:2, 5-7)
Amen. And Merry Christmas.