Our culture today is full of laments about the Christmas holiday. Some bemoan the ever earlier advent of the season.
Doesn't it seem that Christmas decorations line the aisles of stores earlier and earlier every year? Doesn't it seem that Christmas songs are piped into elevators earlier and earlier every year? Doesn't it seem as if all the fall holidays are melding into one long anticipation of Christmas? Before long, we might wonder if Labor Day will one day mark the end of summer and the beginning of the holidays. Some of us worry that drawing the advent of the Christmas season earlier and earlier in the calendar is motivated not by a wish to extend the real purposes of this celebration but to draw us to open our wallets more and more, earlier and earlier. If we only look at our local stores, we might be easily convinced that the primary purpose of Christmas is buying stuff.
Others point to a purported "War on Christmas," worrying that the meaning of Christmas is being lost as its cultural prominence is muted by the forces of political correctness. Some lament that cashiers are banned from saying "Merry Christmas." Some lament the substitution of "holiday" where "Christmas" properly belongs. Some lament the removal of religious songs from "holiday" celebrations at public schools. If we only listened to cable news or talk radio, we might be easily convinced that the importance of Christmas is quickly fading in American culture.
However, I don't worry all that much about these supposed threats to Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas, it is not being waged by supporters of political correctness. If there is a war on Christmas, it is not being waged by Walmart and Target. If there is a war on Christmas, I think the assault is both more subtle and more pernicious than these perplexed conspiracy theories. After all, can it be true that the Christmas season is both extending and under threat? Perhaps.
All these instincts are both right and misdirected. There is something amiss about the ways we observe this holiday season. In the middle of the bustle of shopping, the stress of travel, and the anxieties around family reunions, we sense in a deep way that something is awry. When the Christmas season begins with pepper spray and shoving matches on Black Friday, when physical altercations break out over parking spots at the mall, when we obsess about the language of Christmas rather than its meaning, then we have certainly lost our way.
But are the right perpetrators being blamed? As we point the finger of blame outside of ourselves, do we avoid a more difficult truth?
I wonder if we lose our way around Christmas when we forget its origins, especially the stories composed by Matthew and Luke that have shaped our imaginations in both subtle and explicit ways. The Christmas story is both familiar and strange. We know its basic contours and timeline. However, I think many Christians would be surprised at some of the forgotten details that end up on the cutting room floor of a Christmas pageant, those features of the narrative crowded out of a creche full of various animals and wise men.
Jesus Was Born Under The Roman Empire
The specter of Roman power is the first word in Luke's telling of the birth of Jesus. Luke narrates that Emperor Augustus called for a census. In Rome, a census is no mere demographic study but a way to make an accurate count of individuals so that the Empire would be assured that its coffers were full. A census is a crucial step in taxation. In the ancient world, taxes were profoundly oppressive, especially in an economic system brimming with individuals living on the edge of subsistence. In a world full of people living with very little to spare, the insatiable appetites of Roman military might and power cost ordinary people a great deal. The Roman peace came at a high cost.
From his very first days, therefore, Jesus' life is shaped by Rome's power. His very existence is threatened by a distant power. Indeed, this same empire will one day take his life. According to Luke, therefore, Jesus' life is bracketed not by a friendly government concerned with the rights of its citizens but by the willful exertion of Roman might.
Jesus Was Born In A Manger
That Jesus was born in a manger is well-known. Its significance is less known, however. Among biblical scholars, there is some debate about the nature of the scene Luke paints here. What is clearer, however, are the humble conditions that greeted Jesus in his first days. Rather than the regal halls of Augustus, it was a mere manger that received Jesus. In a sense, Jesus was born homeless, a wandering traveller away from his true home.
At the same time, however, he was certainly not bereft of a loving family. Like any infant, Jesus relied entirely on the love and care of Mary and Joseph for every one of his needs. Even the Messiah relied on parental love to soothe his cries in the middle of the night.
From his first days, therefore, Jesus is aligned with those who suffer most but still hope for much better, with those who rely on the kindness of family and strangers alike merely to survive. If Jesus were to be born today, he would likely be found in a tent city rather than the safety of a hospital.
WATCH Tent City
Jesus Was Born And Shepherds Noticed
The shepherds who first hear the good news of the birth of Christ are unlikely recipients of such world-shaking news. Remember that Luke begins by couching the birth of this homeless boy in an unremarkable part of the world within the machinations of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. The news of Jesus' birth does not ring in the throne room of Caesar or not even the local political powers. His birth is not "breaking news" in prominent places. Instead, shepherds, ordinary though often maligned people are the first to hear the good news. From his first days, therefore, Jesus befriends those at the very margins of our world. The good news is first heard by powerless, anonymous individuals who yearned for true peace. As a recent cartoon noted, the "important people" were not present when Jesus was born.
In each case then, Luke's narrative of Jesus' first days are a stark reminder that this little child's life was always under threat but always received by those we would least expect to be recipients of God's good news.
Is There A "War" On Christmas?
As it is typically defined, there is no "War on Christmas." There is no cabal of conspirators seeking to take this holiday away from Christians. At the same time, something is being lost. But we avoid a hard truth when we look for some faceless external force that might explain all this.
Instead, we ought to look within ourselves.
Recently, Rachel Held Evans dealt with these matters noting, "Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder if the best thing that could happen to this country is for Christ to be taken out of Christmas -- for advent to be made distinct from all the consumerism of the holidays and for the name of Christ to be invoked in the context of shocking of forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. The Incarnation survived the Roman Empire, not because it was common but because it was strange, not because it was forced on people but because it captivated people."
We lose our way around Christmas when we substitute abundance for giving, excess for the sufficiency of faith and family, our perfect plans for the messy and beautiful realities of our lives. We lose sight of the counter-cultural ways that Jesus entered and moved in this world when we demand that the surrounding culture recognize Christmas instead of expecting Christians to live as Jesus did. We fall into the trap of forgetting the significance of Jesus' humble, threatened birth even as we try to defend the most mundane expressions of the holidays.
After all, if we really followed Jesus as he walked on this earth, if we walked alongside the destitute and the homeless, if we were to see God in the broken and the lost, then all the tinsel, all the lights, all the wrapping paper, even the "war" on Christmas itself would suddenly lose their luster in comparison.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.
Follow Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ericbarreto