One hundred years ago, during the First World War, the Christmas truce took place between British, German, and French soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers from opposing sides, who were stationed there to kill each other, instead got to know one another, shared photos of loved ones, and even had a game of soccer.
This of course made their superiors furious, not just because the troops were disobeying orders, but because it is much harder to harm someone with whom you have formed some sort of relationship. The enemy is to be faceless and nameless.
The same holds true for millions of people living in poverty around the world this Christmas. They are the faceless and nameless ones. In reality though, the enemy that is poverty is not faceless. Poverty is about people; it is not about statistics. Poverty is also not just about a lack of material goods; it is more about a lack of dignity, a lack of a sense that you are important. We are reminded that poverty is always personal because it is about relationship.
Author's Note: As we close out Advent, when we so quickly determine what’s our legal right or what we’re owed or what “the Bible really says” when, after all, we’re just simply too quick to judge. In these days where we must affirm #BlackLivesMatter, where we must stand up for victims of rape and abuse, and where we must struggle with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers for full inclusion, sermons like this are humbly offered.
We know the Christmas story well.
Those of us that have grown up with regular, annual, church-going rhythms — we essentially hear this story once a year.
Even so, those with no regular church commitments — people from all walks of life, people of faith or no particular faith, people from varied faiths — if you asked your friend, your neighbor, your cousin, a stranger on the street, I bet at least 50 percent of the time they’d be able to share the gist of the story:
Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.
Mary was married to a guy (named Joseph).
There were angels, and wise men, and shepherds.
And I think there was a manger.
We know this story well.
But we hear it so often it becomes rote — literally a mechanically, automatically, mindlessly routine on repetition in our brains.
Yeah, yeah, yeah — 6lb 8oz baby Jesus, in a manger, Virgin Mary, Adopted Dad Joseph, sheep, shepherds, angels, stars at night, wise men, white Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer …
You get my point.
So, let’s hear the story one more time and lean in a bit to this wild world of dreams, angels, and ancient Jewish marriage contracts.
1. Hero mom calls into C-SPAN to berate her arguing pundit sons
Whether or not your family expects heated political debate over the holidays, you''ll appreciate the way this mom quiets her sons.
2. 14 Women of Color Who Rocked 2014
From the creators of #BlackLivesMatter to the founder of an organization focused on women with incarcerated loved ones, meet the women of color at the forefront of the fight for justice.
3. The Myth of Crying Rape
From Jim Wallis and Sandi Villarreal: "The reality is, these survivors are often re-victimized by a system that interrogates rather than advocates and then fails to deliver justice in a vast majority of cases ... Failure to recognize the sins of power and domination that influence the acts of violence against half of God’s creatures is simply bad theology."
4. Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State
A win for environmentalists that could set an important precedent.
I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.
He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.
Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”
Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”
Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.
Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.
As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”
So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love.
The government of Sierra Leone banned public Christmas and New Year’s celebrations because they may exacerbate efforts to eradicate the Ebola virus.
President Ernest Bai Koroma said that despite immense help from the international community, the number of people infected with the virus continues to rise.
Ebola infections in Sierra Leone recently surpassed those of Liberia and Guinea.
“The illness started at the border and now is in the cities and close to 2,000 people have died from the outbreak,” Koroma told reporters. He asked traditional leaders and tribal chiefs to quit performing rituals in hopes that will help curb Ebola.
The majority of Sierra Leone’s 6 million people are Muslim, but Christmas is widely celebrated among the 27 percent of people who are Christian.
Officials said soldiers will be deployed on the streets and people are advised to stay at home with their families.
Figures in nativity scenes are pretty weird, aren't they? This is true of most manger scenes, whether we’re talking about the ceramic one under a tree or the statuesque one in a church or the plastic one on a lawn. First off, there’s Mary, always looking very fresh and calm and full of reflection — which is quite impressive considering that she just gave birth without any sedative. Then there’s Joseph, doing some kind of man-thing off to the side — holding a lantern or a large stick. He looks totally composed, too.
And there’s the baby Jesus with a full head of hair, wide-open eyes and arms outstretched like he’s ready to belt out a song.
Not to ruin anyone’s Christmas spirit here, but what the heck?
If our manger scenes were realistic, Mary would be recovering from a painful labor full of sweat and blood, with a look on her face that’s anything but serene. And Joseph — wouldn’t he be a nervous wreck, too? His hand too shaky to hold a lantern?
And about that newborn. Shouldn’t he be red-faced and screaming? Eyes clenched closed and wisps of hair stuck to the top of a head that‘s still odd-shaped from all the squeezing?
Instead, we’ve sanitized and romanticized it. We’ve removed all the blood and sweat and tears and pain and goo. It’s no longer something real. We’ve left out all the messy parts. The oh-my-God-what-now parts. The I’m-screaming-as-loud-as-I-can-because-it-really-hurts parts. The oh-no-I’ve-stepped-in-the-animal-droppings parts.
The real parts.
Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:
-the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;
-the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)
-the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?
Can we be as honest as the Bible?
I’ve decided not to worry about the earlier-than-ever start to Christmas commerce this year.
Shortly after Halloween, with hardly a nod to Thanksgiving, stores and advertisers began going full-bore on the supposed “Christmas package,” namely, gift-giving, family fun, decorating, and entertaining.
It’s sad — this annual effort to derive profits from a facsimile of a 1950s Christmas — but other things are a lot sadder: an elusive economic recovery, continuing gun violence, racial violence, religious extremism, mounting rage, and intolerance at home and echoes of the Cold War in Europe.
Let commerce tread the line between gauche and tacky — merchants have salaries and suppliers to pay, after all. We have a troubled world to care about.
The path to that care doesn’t go by way of Wal-Mart or Budweiser. It is God’s path, and it goes by way of anticipation, promises, prophetic vision, a birth, a life, a death, and over all of it a sustaining grace that cares little for our seasonal receipts but cares intensely about our lives.
Maybe it’s good that commerce has declared its independence from religion and decorum. That clears the way for faith to have its parallel season — not in competition with commerce, but as the deeper reality that commerce can never attain, the deeper meaning we yearn for.
One of the dominant dogmas of the season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to contribute toward economic growth.
This is what happens when Decemberism crucifies Christmas.
One may define “Decemberism” as a state in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by our personal rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, in December. Decemberism is the predominant religious tradition of the so-called “holiday shopping season,” and the significance of Christmas is consistently crucified as a result. As Victor Lebow states:
“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
In striking contrast to the Christmas ramifications of God’s incarnation, to be a human of any value in our current context is closely connected with supply and demand, even if it all leads to our personal and public self-destruction.
Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
For blood remains. Later he won’t run.
Now that Dec. 25 is over, the real war on Christmas can begin.
Because, you see, that other “War on Christmas” that begins in late November and ends on Dec. 25 is a manufactured war. That war is fabricated by a television network that, despite the Bible’s repeated message at the birth of Christ to “not be afraid,” wants Christians to live in fear of some secular agenda to destroy Christmas. After all, there’s nothing like fear and a manufactured war to raise television ratings.
That’s a manufactured war because, as Diana Butler Bass has brilliantly pointed out, the season from late November to Dec. 24 isn’t Christmas. It’s Advent. If anyone were waging a war on a Christian season during the early part of December, it wouldn’t be on Christmas. It would be on Advent.
The real war on Christmas begins on Dec. 26, but no major television network will tell you about it. The real Christmas season, known as Christmastide, begins on the evening of Dec. 24 and lasts 12 days, ending on Jan. 5.
We’ve created a Christmas monster: a grotesque assemblage of pagan, Christian and capitalist symbolism into something that resembles something we’re both attracted to and repulsed by at the same time. We’re fueled by an admixture of both guilt and greed, while the domestic economy pins its annual hopes on our propensity for spending far more than we have or want to spend.
All in the name of baby Jesus.
It seems that we have no means of escaping the vortex of materialism, partly because whoever is the first not to buy gifts is the cheap jerk who throws the whole transactional nature of gift-giving out of whack. But one Christmas, a few years back, my wife, Amy, and I had finally reached our limit. We were in the midst of our Financial Peace budget slim-down and Christmas spending was an obvious target.
A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.
But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.
“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”
Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem. This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.
In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.
We are all hypocrites. I am a hypocrite. That guy over there shoveling his driveway is a hypocrite. You have most likely been a hypocrite at some point. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, and atheists — all hypocrites. This is not so much a statement of judgment as it is a statement of human nature. It is unavoidable and so wonderfully human. All of us have double standards and fail to practice what we preach, simultaneously looking down on others who do the same thing.
That being said, I am about to criticize something in which the act of criticizing will itself be an act of hypocrisy. I am criticizing the vast swarm of words, opinions, responses, and re-posts that have a tendency to take over the Internet and our modern-day consciousness. So now I will simply add to the chatter (though for your sake, hopefully briefly) and then depart to spend at least one day, God-willing, in some form of peace and quiet before Christmas, because really that’s why I’m so perturbed. It seems as if we are in a rather confusing tale about two Christmases.
There is one Christmas as celebrated by orthodox Christians in which we rejoice in the birth of Jesus into a manger, coming not as king, but as beggar and blue-collar worker, born amid dung and hay, eventually coming to signify and proclaim the reconciliation of heaven, earth, and nations, and trumpeting peace, joy, love, and life.
There is another Christmas that is on the surface very similar looking — the Christmas in which pundits on both sides use the day of Christmas as fodder to further their political, ideological, and religious views and people bludgeon each other to death with action figures.
Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!
The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.
As we move into the Sundays following Christmas and begin to anticipate Epiphany, we face the terror of the coming week’s Gospel reading, the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod’s murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top.
Herod’s brutality is legendary. Most of what we know comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Matthew records that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and “he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). While scholars debate whether this event is historical or not, it is certainly consistent with what we learn about Herod from Josephus.