Christmas

The Power of Christmas

Photo: Following the Star, © Juampi Rodriguez / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Following the Star, © Juampi Rodriguez / Shutterstock.com

“Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so we might become more like him,” wrote the well-known preacher and activist William Sloan Coffin. He goes on to add, “We know what this means; watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”*

Christmas really is about seeing the power of God at work, but far too often pastors and churches fail to tell this story. Oh sure, we preach about Mary and Joseph, Jesus being born in a Bethlehem manger, and the Magi following a star to find him and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. My fear is that the story has grown familiar and routine. We have forgotten its power and no longer see its challenge. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi seek out Jesus after hearing of his birth. In order to find him they ask King Herod where they can find the new king. This, of course, is news to Herod who is surprised to learn that his title has been claimed by a baby. Herod consults his advisors and then reacts with the expected calmness of a leader anticipating a conflict, which is to say his response is not calm at all. 

This story is an announcement that Jesus has arrived to challenge the powerful. The Messiah was not born meek and mild.   

Celebrating in Ways that Bring Joy

Photo courtesy Sharon Delgado

Photo courtesy Sharon Delgado

There are many ways to celebrate the coming of the light in this dark season of the year, including the Winter Solstice, Hanukah, Kwanza, and Christmas. Christmas is supposedly a Christian holiday, but the orgy of consumption that accompanies this holiday in the United States makes that questionable. How ironic it is that people celebrate the birth of a poor baby born in a stable (as the story goes) by spending billions on "stuff" that will ultimately end up in overflowing landfills. However, Christian or not, many are swept along by the dominant media message: "Buy gifts for your loved ones to show them how much they are loved and how precious they are." 

The pressure can be hard to resist. 

This may not present a problem for those who practice a Christianity that is conformed to consumer culture, but for those who seek to follow Jesus it challenges us with one of his core teachings: "You cannot serve both God and mammon." Mammon: wealth, riches, money, stuff.  

Christmas Wisdom: Follow the Star for Foreign Policy

Image: Adoration of the Magi, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Image: Adoration of the Magi, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

One of the most fresh and challenging interpretations surrounding the Christmas narrative was produced by South Africa’s renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In regards to the Magi and their visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2: 1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking proposal surrounding the biblical text and its direct relationship with cooperative efforts between those in the so-called global north and south.

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Among other things, a key insight into this portion of the Christmas narrative is that God is revealed through the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization. The main characters of the Christmas plot are not wealthy and prosperous high-rollers, but the downtrodden and vulnerable poor who stand as deliberate reminders of how God is in solidarity with those who are too often forgotten and oppressed. If Mary and Joseph were people of wealth and privilege, they surely would have received room at the inn, yet God shows an alternative to the common hierarchies of status in our world, and such pushed-aside people are given highest priority as the bearers of Christ.

God Occupies a Baby Crib

Photo: Depiction of a baby Jesus, © R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Depiction of a baby Jesus, © R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

There is a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the Virgin Mary that describes the baby Jesus as “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.” The line captures perfectly the beautiful but also shocking idea, central to Christianity, that the infinite God who created the universe also chose to descend, dwindle, become small, become helpless, become dependent on human beings.

Hopkins is right: the baby Jesus is not merely a sentimental or cute idea but is potentially radical, transformative, and controversial.

 

What Are You Singing: O! Holy Night

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

I can remember hearing several times as a middle and high schooler that Christians lie the most when they sing. These claims generally came from the mouths of college-aged worship leaders during emotional praise segments at mission camps and conferences. They were usually followed up with a heartfelt plea to raise honest words and promises to God during the next song. (And if we really meant it, we would ignore the burning stares of our judgmental, worldly peers and come down front for our seventh altar call.) 

Though I generally don’t remember these scenes and indictments fondly, I have recently been contemplating the idea of honest worship, especially in relation to the Christmas season. I mean, how often do we memorize a whole song and sing along to it regularly without really stopping to contemplate the lyrics? And even when we do realize what we’re singing, how often do we actually let those words transform our hearts or actions or perspectives?  

All of these thoughts started stewing in my mind during my Thanksgiving vacation two weeks ago. Per usual, I started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving (and by the day after I mean a few days before). As I was washing dishes, belting out my favorite version of “O! Holy Night,” I was suddenly struck with the thought What am I singing? Read the lyrics below to see if you get what I mean. (Hint: my moment happened somewhere around the second verse.)

Why I Let My Children Play With Elves

Photo: © Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com

Photo: © Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com

One of the great debates around Christmastime for Christians is whether to encourage or allow the belief in Santa Claus. I have friends and family on both sides of this debate, so I want to be careful here. I have a great deal of respect for the desire to keep the focus on Jesus and his birth at this time of year. I want to encourage that focus, too.

And, yet, I allow my children … I encourage them even … to believe in Santa.

We — my husband and I — don’t just stop there. We also have elves that visit our house every year during this season. Some would say that at best I am distracting from the message of Christ. At worst I am lying to my children.

The line between fantasy and falsehood is delightfully fuzzy during childhood. God created it to be this way and it is so important for a child to be able to play in this grey area.

The Annunciation – A Divinely Human Moment

Simone Martini, Annunciation 1333 C.E.

Simone Martini, Annunciation 1333 C.E.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

The beautiful anonymity and soft innocence of a young girl in Nazareth would be stripped by an angelic visitation. Who could ever envision the global veneration soon to commence? This Holy Virgin of Martini's masterpiece cannot be Mary's vision. The gilded, enthroned Mother of God,  Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Panagia. Millenia of adoration blurs the humanity of such a terrifying moment in the life of a child.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Gabriel's praise for her resounds the Earth this Advent Season. Martini paints the words spouting from Gabriel's mouth, invading Mary's space. Her shoulder shrug speaks to Luke's revelations of her humanity. The Gospel record exposes her vulnerability and reluctance to embrace such a startling event.

Christians: No Need to 'Reclaim' Christmas

Photo: Christmas consumerism illustration, © pryzmat / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Christmas consumerism illustration, © pryzmat / Shutterstock.com

Are you put out that a community nativity display was nixed by a city council? Did a checkout clerk greet you with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? Maybe Christmas music annoys you when the Advent fast hasn't even arrived?

Not me. I am not compelled to "reclaim" or "rescue" Christmas from the many who ignore and the few who despise its magnificent origins.

How can I be anxious or offended? I am in too much awe of its startling truth: that a baby is God, gasping for air, clasping for mother's milk, flailing his small limbs in a feed trough; taking on my frailty, contingency, vulnerability, that I might partake in his everlasting nature.

The baby is now Lord of all things visible and invisible, forever "one of us," still bearing his now glorified, nail-scarred flesh at the Father's side, making all things new for all persons, hallowing the far-flung cosmos — matter's maker now made matter, redeeming every atom and every stoney heart. This reality overpowers me with its brilliant mystery.

War On Christmas? Sign This Minister Up!

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Ah  I LOVE this time of the year!

Some people wait with bated breath for duck season, some for deer season, but for me it is all about Christmas season. That's right, I'm one of those lefty liberals that have declared a War on Christmas. Yes! Sign me up for the War on Christmas!

But maybe not for the reasons you might imagine.

While I am signing up to help in a War on Christmas, I'm not on, what by default gets called, the “non-Christian” side. I’m also not signing up for the side that news pundits falsely purport as the “Christian” side. If anything, I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.  

Starting the 'Christmas Tithe'

Religion is far too judgmental. Surveys show that many people think that, especially a new generation of young people who — more than ever before — are checking the “none of the above” religious affiliation box. 

I get it. But religious leaders tend to be judgmental about many of the wrong things; they are not making moral judgments on the important questions. So I am going to be judgmental, as a religious leader, about something I just read.

A recent Harris International and World Vision poll showed that Americans plan to spend more this Christmas season on consumer gifts than they did last year, but give less to charities and ministries that help the poor. Many say they are less likely to give a charitable gift as a holiday present — a drop from 51 percent to 45 percent.

So we will have more Christmas presents this year, but less help for the poor. While retailers, economists, and politicians may rejoice at the news about higher consumer spending this year, the lower levels of support for the ones Jesus called “the least of these” should legitimately bring some moral judgments from the faith community. 

Indeed, the Matthew 25 scripture that this text is taken from is one of the few and most judgmental passages in all the New Testament. About some things, Jesus was judgmental. The Gospel clearly says that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, is how we treat Jesus. That’s is pretty judgmental, especially when you go on to read what will happen to those who ignore Jesus in this way. 

But rather than just being judgmental, let’s do something about it. Let’s start “A Christmas Tithe.”

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