The 12 Days of Christmas are just about up. Tommorrow is Epiphany, when we celebrate that Maggi bringing their gifts of gold, frankensence and myrh to the Light of the world. Me, I still haven't gotten my Christmas cards out yet.
One of the nicest things for a teacher about this time of year is that the college kids are still on break, so they come back to their old high school to visit. This morning I got to visit with Jen, a former cheerleader who is now a Junior at Georgetown University. She shared something wonderful with me, the Christmas letter emailed out by her Theology Professor. I know, we LCMS Lutherans are hyper-critical of any religious views that aren't our own, but I found his letter beautuful. I hope that you do too.
I wish you peace in your own varied holidays, and send greetings written in the final hours of my own. Forgive the imposition. History weighs heavily, and we should all speak clearly what is ours to say as best we can. So I offer you my own attempts to make sense of Christmas this year. They are inspired by conversations with some of you. I hope they are helpful in some way.
Mv favorite Christmas song has always been Emerson,
They said there’d be snow on Christmas, they said there’d be peace on earth, well Halleluia! Noel! Be it Heaven or Hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.
I always liked hearing that song. I’d try to find it on the radio as I drove to pick up my grandfather. A bitter tonic for the saccharine glaze of happy families, merry gentlemen, and all the other holiday BS that had little to do with my own Christmas most years.
Peace on Earth and... snow. Wishes ranked on the same level of hallmark sentimentality. The peace presumably of that that ideal scene of family sentimentality. “Away in a manger”—the cozy, warm stable, sweet hay, lowing cattle, and the little Lord Jesus, “no crying he makes.” As touching as it may be. it hardly seems to justify scaring the wits out of shepherds with angels singing “Peace on Earth.”
This fairy tale drops most of the Gospel framing: a vulnerable pregnant couple forced to travel because of imperial caprice, unwelcomed in a strange town, reduced to sleeping with animals. Sweet lowing or not, a horrible place to birth a child, The violence of the powers-that-be frame the story--from the Emperor ordering a census, to Herod, the petty client King, slaughtering all the male children in his realm to eliminate any messianic challenge to his power. It was as strange a birth for a messiah as the end it foreshadowed.
The deep story is so different from the fairy tale. It bears a more savage hope. In a world of violent power, God precisely does not give us what “we deserve.”
God makes all things new. Not with the sort of power we imagine--the power of coercion, of violence, of saying “No” to what we oppose, even when it is evil. But with a “Yes” that reaffirms that primordial yes that lies just beyond the horizon of our impotent, gifted finitude. . .that creative “Yes” that holds us and all things in existence
Frankly. I can’t say I much understand God’s power.
I am more familiar with the variety that says “No.” Modem Christianity is too. It fell into a great misunderstanding of God in this regard. Forgetting God’s transcendence, it imagined him as a Supreme Being. An all-powerful version of the absolute monarchs that ruled
“God” is no such monstrous tyrant, rather a mystery more about being than smiting, the ungraspable source implied in our surprising existence.
When we remake God in our own image, it’s clear enough how we should act. Impose our will on the world; eliminate other alternatives. Indeed so much of Christianity seems obsessed with saying “No” to all it finds wrong, confusing condemnation and coercion with faithfulness to the Gospel.
It’s harder to figure out how to follow the God who says yes. Creation out of nothing is clearly beyond us. But the Incarnation is about more than a baby in a manger. Jesus grew to adulthood and lived a certain way. A way that might make sense of how humans might exercise power like God. He was known to seek out the companionship of the excluded and reviled: prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors and collaborators. He reached across the no’s of excommunication. He spoke the dangerous truth against power and fear. He challenged political and religious authorities, as well as the fear and resentment of the crowds. He preached a Gospel of engagement, of attending to the desperate, frightening need of the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the imprisoned; of facing violence, without flinching and fear, but also without returning it. The Gospels are full of accounts of him practicing what he preached, engaging the bitter and broken, answering opponents, facing his would be oppressors. These yeses continued, through and beyond the world’s great “No” to him.
The core message of Jesus’ preaching (and one hopes of Christianity) is that God empowers us to do the same. We do so by saying yes to where we are, to the history and relationships into which we are born. We do so by looking each other in the eye and listening. We do so by facing those we wish didn’t exist. We do so by saying “Yes” to the obligations we encounter, even when they demand more than we think we can ever give.
A strange power indeed. A yes beyond safety, control, and certainty. One that finds the power to give in having nothing to loose.
“No” seems easier, as does, I suppose, an irrelevant fairy tale about a perfect little baby glowing in a stable. History desperately needs the new things our own “Yes” can make