'Tis the season for a You Have Heard It Said Special Edition!
...And a reminder we need more than once a year.
Each year, Christmas reminds us of the grand concept of incarnation:
God wrapped in human flesh... That's good. But Christmas also reminds us just how little so much of "Christianity" tends to look like Christ... Blech. That's not so good. In Christmas, we see God's style on display. In examining the incarnation, we look into a manger and behold the baby staring back at us:
Born to a young mother who had become pregnant before marriage, and destined to be spoken of as a "bastard" throughout his childhood... Born to an adoptive father of no reputation, wealth, or social status... Born unassumingly, without pretense, pomp or circumstance, or even a real dwelling place fitting of a fragile human infant... Born amidst the heightened societal agitation of an oppressive government's enforced census... Born with a birth announcement that went out to filthy, outcast shepherds - the kind of people who were deemed not-fit-for-temple-worship, and who were excluded by the religious establishment. The kind of people parents told their kids not to speak to or associate with.
This same Jesus went on to be visited by pagan astrologers from the east rather than any of the respected religious hierarchy already in Israel. This same Jesus took part in some form of illegal immigration, being made a refugee by his family's escape to Egypt when he was just a toddler. His childhood was one of imperial occupation, of corrupt power seeking his life, of slanderous whispers surrounding him, defaming the legitimacy of his birth.
...And then he grew up.
This is the Jesus who challenged
the religious, even denounced them, while keeping closest company with rejects, OUTCASTS, TRAITORS, whores, thieves and terrorists.
This is the Jesus...
who celebrated the spirituality of gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, and others who were not of the "correct" national origins or religious affiliations... The Jesus who heralded a kingdom "not of this world" and yet breaking down its door just the same... The Jesus who never sought to take up power for himself, and who even discouraged people from following him if they weren't ready to live a radically different way of life... The Jesus who maintained nonviolence as a standard for himself and those who would seek to follow him... Who spoke readily to the untouchables of society, and yet had not a single word for King Herod when put on trial before him... Who told the religious elites that their traditions and religiosity (and even their devotion to scripture) got in the way of them being close to the heart of God, and that they were the true hypocrites of the world.
This is the same Jesus...
who was considered such a threat to the religious establishment, and such a threat to the leading world empire, that he was nailed to the underside of that empire. He was executed as a criminal, and found a friend in the criminal beside him, while suffering the most humiliating and torturous death that age was able to conjure up.
...Is this Jesus even allowed in our "Christmas?"
There was no room in the Bethlehem inn for his birth... But is there even room for this guy in mainstream Christianity?
When you consider this Jesus next to what "Christianity" has become, it is an absolutely staggering thing. Often, it's so hard to even find Jesus within what should be called a "Cultureanity" (or maybe "Americanity") - one which pays lip service to Christ, but celebrates unchecked prosperity, greed, power, might-makes-right, nationalism, destruction and violence and apathy (and a lot of other terrible things) while focusing people on themselves. Services keep us fixated on our own "personal salvation" while turning a blind eye to the world community and the salvation Jesus announced to it. Who even has room for issues of real justice or mercy if we spend all our time merely telling people to pray more, worship more, witness more, or study the Bible more... forever bathing them in the very guilt and shame they were supposedly released from in Christ?
Amidst that whole mess, Christmas reminds us of some important things.
It reminds us that little has changed in 2000 years if the manner of Jesus' birth and life do not affect even how we celebrate those things (let alone how we live, what we value, etc). No matter how big or how lavish a show we make of Christmas, and no matter how much we whine that we want to "keep 'Christ' in 'Christmas,'" if we continue to ignore the Way of Jesus - evident in every facet of his life (including his birth) - then Christmas is not in us.
How can we say we care about keeping the Christ in Christmas when we make it so obvious that that we don't care about keeping Christ in Christianity?
It's not as if "they" had it wrong, but then Jesus came and "we" fixed everything.
If Jesus was physically present in many Christian institutions today, he'd likely be expelled as a dangerous heretic.
And he would have fewer followers than we typically assume, since we see so many users of Jesus, and so many subscribers to Jesus... But Jesus was looking for friends. He wasn't after converts, but disciples. He wasn't after a people of privilege, but a people of purpose. He didn't come to set up a new religion that would be the swankiest and country club-iest; he came to announce and embody the manifest kingdom of God... So let's be clear: Jesus today would be the same as Jesus then - he would have more friends in the places people don't consider his, and fewer friends in the places people do.
The same types of people still fear him today, still dismiss him today, and still consider him a liability to their positions today... It's just that a lot of them claim to represent him now. That's why one of the better things about Christmas is that it can remind us of the shape "Emmanuel" ("God with us") takes - from the birth in a manger to the "it is finished" of the cross. And that shape reveals something important: Modern Christianity can no more contain Jesus than ancient Judaism could.
"Keep Christ in Christmas!" they say. We hear it all the time.
But here's the reality: There are a lot more people inside the Christian camp repeating those words passionately than there are people who actually want to see them happen. (There are also plenty of people outside the Christian camp who are very much interested in there being more Christ in Christmas, who would never know to even articulate it that way, and who think Christianity has nothing for them to resonate with...) And while every year I hear the same rhetoric about the "War On Christmas," and all the fear and anger that Christians stir up along with it... The truth is, we really need a war on Christmas if this is what Christmas has become. A "truer" Christmas is not found in keeping more rigidly to 1950's nostalgia. A truer Christmas would be found in a people who stand up to greed, reckless attainment, oppression, exploitation here and abroad, and a host of other evils Christians by and large don't seem bothered by at all when this season rolls around each year.
Jesus... remains... a revolutionary.
And that's what makes a reminder like this ultimately a reminder of hope. Despite the sickening feeling that can come when we honestly assess the 'Cultureanity' around us... For those of us still reaching, still unsatisfied with maintaining the status quo, still uninterested in being conformed to the religiosity of this present age, still seeking transformation, still desiring something real and something good and something pure... Jesus remains the great beacon of light and love. His birth signals peace and goodwill and joy. It brings rescue to the thirsty heart. It proclaims liberty to the oppressed and release to the captives. It brings good news to the poor and marginalized. And so long as all these things remain the hallmark of this birth and life, Jesus will remain a revolutionary - one contrary to the broken and abusive systems of this world.
Weary, burdened wanderers like myself can take heart and find rest... For there is great hope in remembering that Jesus is too big for "Christmas" as we know it.
...Perhaps what we see in that manger says as much about us as it does Him.