It's 2000 years later and they still haven't been able to kill the revolutionary message of Christmas. God knows they've tried. The Powers That Be will never be comfortable with The Power That Is. That Power - whether you call it God, or Consciousness, or Scientific Principle - is universal and freely available to all. That makes it subversive to centralized authority.
"It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven." If that's true - literally true - where do you think the leadership of the Republican Party will be spending eternity?
That's why so many churches have aligned themselves against the message of Jesus Christ, time and again. Over the ages they've thrown their support to Caesar, to Franco, or to Bush. But the subversive message, Jesus' message of peace and of love for the poor and despised, lives on and on and on.
That message shares something with the One whose story is told on this day. Like Him it dies at the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, only to rise again and live.
And they say there are no miracles.
"The spiritual life is not a theory," says one spiritual book. "It must be lived." Jesus said that over and over. To be Godly, he kept saying, you must do strive to do Godlike things. That's not a comfortable "lifestyle choice." As I sang in my "leftist Christian hymn" a few months back, "it's an inconvenience to love Jesus."
That's true whether you're the kind of Christian who believes Jesus is the sole path to salvation, an atheist who admires his ethical principles, a Muslim who acknowledges Jesus as a great prophet, a Hindu who sees him as an avatar of Brahman, or a Jew who considers him a great Jewish teacher.
How tough is Jesus' message? Consider this: he instructed his followers to "love your enemies." Now think of your enemies. Are they the secular humanists? The Godless liberals? Or are they the Fox News crowd? George Bush? Dick Cheney?
He said "love them." Period.
Now think about this: Jesus has instructed you to love Osama Bin Laden, too. His orders are clear. He's told you to love Al Qaeda, and the men who beheaded Michael Berg too. You can resist them, but you have to love them. Do you call yourself a Christian? Call me back when you love Osama.
Peace on Earth. Good will toward All. Those aren't my words. They came with the season. And, while I haven't figured out how to love Osama either, I get the point. It's a noble goal - fight while still loving the enemy.
There are those who have kept the real message of Jesus alive over the years and followed it to the best of their ability. One of my favorites was the Rev. Claude Williams, who went to Alabama in the 1920's to struggle for civil rights. That was an invitation to martyrdom in those days, but Rev. Williams was undeterred.
Once Rev. Williams raised his window shades during a holiday party at his house. The party included whites and blacks, men and women, mingling to share the Christmas spirit. Any white person passing by was likely to call for an immediate lynching party if he saw that mixed crowd. Torture and death was sure to follow. But Rev. Williams could not be deterred.
"Let the hypocrites see what it looks like to follow the Son of Man!" he roared at his guests. Williams, a Presbyterian minister, helped form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
Here's how he was rewarded for his Christian spirit: He was defrocked by his church. God can sure get in the way of a successful ministerial career, can't he?
The good reverend may not have been judicious, but one thing's for certain. He had the Christmas spirit, big-time. (Music fans will recognize the name of his granddaughter Lucinda Williams, who is now one of our country's best singers and songwriters. "The moral arc of the universe is long," said Dr. King, "but it bends toward Justice.")
The early Christian church was a model of revolutionary inspiration before the Powers That Be got hold of it. There was no priestly class. Communion was celebrated, well, communally. Women as well as men led worship services. What little they had was shared by all. They mixed nationalities and races without reservation.
That was the church that Christ and his disciples created, before the power brokers took over. The real point of the Sanhedrin story in the Bible isn't that Jews hated Jesus. They didn't, anti-Semites notwithstanding. The point of the story is that when religion is too organized, it gets bound up with politics and power and loses sight of the sacred. When Jesus turned water into wine without priestly approval it was a revolutionary act.
Now the sons and daughters of some of those hypocrites who threatened Rev. Williams claim to speak for Christ. They are the American Sanhedrin. But the revolutionary message still won't die. It lived through the abolitionists who risked their lives to help slaves escape to freedom. it lived in Dorothy Day, the Catholic Socialist. It lived through Rev. Dr. King, Rev. E. D. Nixon, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and the other divinely inspired civil rights leaders of the 1960's.
That message lived in Tom Fox, who suffered and died for his brave Christian witness against our unjust war in Iraq. It lived in anyone who, metaphorically, washed the feet of the sick and dying rather than live a life of idle comfort.
It lives in Kurt Vonnegut, a secular humanist who said of his predecessor as head of the American Humanist Society, "He's in heaven now." It was a joke to that group, and it got a big laugh. Yet Vonnegut wrote: "If Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being."
The spirit of Christmas also lives in self-described "heathen" Jackson Browne. "If any one of us should interfere in the business of why there are poor," he sings, "they get the same as the rebel Jesus."
The spirit of Christmas walks through Vonnegut's veins, and Jackson's, more than it does in a thousand political preachers. It shows itself in anyone who reaches out to the hated and the despised, the prostitutes and the junkies and street people. Jesus defended the "harlot" from stoning, after all.
When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well he defied all social convention against mixing between men and women, and "good" and "bad" people. That woman was living in sin, after all. Countless generations of Bible readers needed no more sign of her decadent life than the fact that she had been married five times. Why, that's even more than John McCain or Newt Gingrich!
And, as for that "rich man" and heaven, consider our nation's wealth in comparison to the rest of the world. Aren't most Americans like the rich man in Jesus' saying? How can any of us enter the Kingdom of Heaven, whatever you imagine that to be, unless we struggle to reverse the devastating impact our greed has had on the rest of humanity - and the planet?
Remember. You're judged by your actions, not your words. That's what Jesus taught.
If you're a Literal Christian who believes people can only by saved by accepting Jesus as the Son of God, I've hope I haven't upset you. If I have, allow me to make a suggestion: Embrace His revolutionary message. People will be so moved and impressed by your actions that you'll get more converts than a thousand cable television shows could ever bring.
Or maybe I'm wrong, and you won't get any converts. But you'll have been true to the message, and helped some people in the bargain.
And if you're a fundamentalist who simply hates humanists and liberal Christians, here's how to get back at them once and for all. Try living as Jesus commanded. They'll probably die of shock.
Here's something I wrote a while back:
It's true. Jesus is your cousin. So is the homeless person asking you for spare change. So is Fidel Castro. And Tony Snow. And Osama Bin Laden.
" The science of genetics tells us that .. most of us (are Jesus') cousins a few million removed - and therefore, of course, each other's."
If that doesn't mess with your head, what will?
Here's my wish for you. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday in the Spirit of the Season. That Spirit, in a word, is Love.
And don't let the Powers That Be tell you otherwise.
I was hungry and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
I was naked and you clothed me.
I was sick and you visited me.
I was in prison and you came to me.
- Matthew 25-35
A Night Light