Getting and giving gifts, putting up the tree, sending Christmas cards...all of these are wonderful cultural traditions, but how many of us reflect deeply on the question, "What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas?"
We are celebrating the birth of Jesus-the person we Christians believe is the "Messiah." But who was this itinerant preacher from Galilee? What did he say and do that would have any relevance for Christians in the United States in 2009?
We can get a clue as to how the Word and life of Jesus have meaning for us today by looking at his most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.
When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying:
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I doubt there is a Christian in the United States who would take issue with God's blessing the poor, the meek and the peacemakers. And it must have been a great comfort to the poor, the meek, and the peacemakers who were lucky enough actually to hear Jesus speak these words.
If Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers," does that imply that "Cursed are the war makers"? If war makers are cursed, what does that mean for a nation that has spent more than $946 billion dollars on war making in Iraq and Afghanistan? What does it mean for a nation that has spent more than $5.8 trillion dollars on the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons?
If Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor", does the corollary hold, "Cursed are the rich"? If the rich are cursed, what does that mean for a nation that makes up 5% of the world's population, but consumes 24% of the world's energy? What does it mean for a nation whose citizens eat 815 billion calories of food each day--that's roughly 200 billion more than needed--enough to feed 80 million people? What does it mean for a nation whose citizens daily consume an average of 159 gallons of water, while more than half the world's population consume an average of 25 gallons?
If Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek," must we then consider that "Cursed are the powerful"? Who are the powerful? Take another look at the aforementioned facts on United States military might and dominance over global resources to answer this question.
So, blessed are the peacemakers, the poor and the meek. Cursed are the war makers, the rich and the powerful. That is not a warm fuzzy Christmas message for Christians in the U.S.A.
If this is what Jesus taught, are you sure you want to celebrate his coming into the world?
My guess is that if Jesus spoke his "good news" to American Christians in 2009, many of "the faithful" would want him lynched. We would challenge Jesus, saying things like, "Our military promotes and protects freedom!", and "We are rich and powerful because we are a Christian nation!"
For those who try to defend our use of military violence, my guess is that Jesus would respond as he responded to his disciples 2000 years ago, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." For those who try to defend our riches and power, Jesus might offer, "No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." This "good news" has been squarely rejected by rich, powerful, war making patriots for more than 2000 years.
As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we must deal with the fact that Jesus came to proclaim his radical and revolutionary gospel message of love and nonviolence, and he was murdered for it. Here in the United States, we continue to crucify him through our war-making, mammon-worshiping ways.
Let me be clear. I do not mean that we cannot and should not enjoy the cultural customs of giving gifts, decorating trees and sending Christmas cards; there is nothing inherently wrong with these. But as Christians, we cannot confuse them with the real meaning of Christmas-the celebration of the coming of Jesus, the prophet from Galilee, who calls us all to repentance and to building God's Kingdom of love, justice, peace and mercy. I ask you to remember this as you prepare for Christmas' coming and perhaps to reflect on the words of Timothy 2:11-14:
The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.