“Jesus is the reason for the Season!” It has become a cliche. In Christmas service sermons across Christian churches, we will hear this repeated over and over again. The priest in my parish reminded us of this. What does it mean for Jesus to be the reason for the season? I do not mean the fake outrage that for many years has been coming from the Christian right about this imaginary “War on Christmas.” President Donald Trump has even declared victory in this war. He told a Values Voter Summit, “Guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” In a rally in Utah this month, Trump told the attendees in his limited vocabulary style, “Christmas is back, bigger, and better than ever before. We are bringing Christmas back.” There’s even a TV commercial thanking President Trump “for letting us say Merry Christmas again.” I cannot remember when we were not allowed to say “Merry Christmas!” It is a fake battle fought by the Christian right.
The truth American Christians are reluctant to confront is that the threat to Christianity is not from atheists, secularists, Muslims, etc. The Christian church is facing an internal crisis and as one of my friends will say, “Christianity has a PR problem.” For example, each Christmas season, millions of Christians who have not attended church all year go to services. For the most part, these are cultural Christians who make out time to be a part of this particular ritual for the celebration of Jesus' birth. The sermon they get reminds them of the irrelevance of the church as the focus is on culture wars. I suspect the reason many do not attend all year is not that they are lazy or have lost faith (as sometimes church leadership erroneously assume), it is because they have lost faith in the institution of the church and consider it irrelevant to their faith journey. Many Christians in America are suspicious of institutional religion because of its authoritarian streak and aloofness to the practical needs of the people.
Returning to the idea of Jesus as the reason for the season, in what ways do American Christians embody this? It seems to me that the Christian church is more interested in winning rhetorical battles than affecting meaningful change. The Jesus celebrated during this season was a poor refugee. Infant narratives tell us that Jesus was born in a stable and for fear of his safety, his parents Joseph and Mary took him to Egypt. In Egypt, he was an undocumented foreigner without any official status. What better time of the year to highlight this story of Jesus and connect it to the present crisis of poverty and migration in our world? I suspect many people who attended Christmas services did not hear this. Here, we should commend Pope Francis for his prophetic voice. In his Christmas Eve message, he made the connection between the plight of the Holy Family and that of immigrants. In his Christmas Day message, he repeated the same sentiments when he said,
We see Jesus in the many children forced to leave their countries to travel alone in inhuman conditions and who become an easy target for human traffickers. Through their eyes, we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy … Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed and how hard it is not to have a place to lay one’s head. May our hearts not be closed as they were in the homes of Bethlehem.
Pope Francis’ message is only effective if Christian leaders can take that message and turn it into action in their communities. Christmas this year is celebrated under the cloud of over nine million children losing their health insurance because Congress did not reauthorize the Children Health Insurance Program. This is a Congress that has just given $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to corporations and millionaires who are not hurting for cash. We celebrate Christmas as millions of refugees running from war-torn areas are stranded around the world because many governments wouldn’t welcome them. American Christian leaders have been silent over the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants. Making Jesus the reason for the season is to speak and act passionately about the plight of the poor, the immigrant, and the most vulnerable. Jesus' story is a story of poverty, an undocumented immigrant, and vulnerability. It is the Christian story. It is the story I want to hear at Christmas.