Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Story

“Dad, I’m going now.”

He looked up from his work, gestured to his staff to come back later, and walked over to his son, waiting by the doorway.

“Are you sure about this? You remember what I said …”

“Yes, Father” said the son, “I remember everything, and I know you are worried about me. I know it will be hard, painful, all of that, but you know that we have to do this. If we don’t … “

The father nodded gravely.

“You could at least take some comforts. You know you have the right to money, power, protection. I could arrange – ” but the son stopped him, shaking his head.

“If I did that, then those who have none of those things might not believe I was truly with them, truly one of them. I must be as poor, as ordinary as anyone else.”

The father sighed.

“I know. I know you must do things this way.” The father smiled. “After all, I said so myself a long time ago, didn’t I?”

The son smiled too.

“It’s a perfect plan.”

“But the cost?”

“We must pay it. Who else could?”

They stood together for a moment, father and son, no words but in perfect understanding and love.

“I love you, Father.”

“And I love you, Son.”

Later that evening, in the fields near Bethlehem, shepherds watching their flocks were startled by bright lights in the sky, and they were terrified. An angel appeared to them, saying “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people …”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christ and Christmas

Every year, the same tired argument comes up between the overly religious and the overly cynical, basically about who owns the holiday season which comes around at the end of December each year. A great many things have been said which appear at first to make sense, but which lose a lot of their validity when you stop to consider them. As a result, anyone making an assertion about what the holiday season “should” mean tends to get ignored by a large portion of the public straight off, and sometimes that is a mistake. Not that my own opinion is better than anyone else’s, but I think there are some things we ought to consider, whatever our personal beliefs and perspective.

First, I want to emphasize that compulsion has no place in the Christmas season, as I think of it. That is, no one who is not Christian should feel obliged to act in accordance with Christian beliefs, anymore than someone who is not Jewish should observe Hannukah, or someone who is not Muslim should observe Ramadan, or someone who is not Seinfeld should observe Festivus. The flip side, of course, also applies. Someone who is not a Jew has no business attacking the observance of Hannukah, someone who is not a Muslim has no business trying to restrict Ramadan, and so on. In the United States, there is no valid legal or moral basis for trying to stamp out public ceremonies which peacefully celebrate a religious event. It may or may not be valid to restrict public funds for religious presentations (but if you ban one, you must ban all, including Kwanzaa, Gaia festivals, or even the Great Pumpkin), but the modern culture attacks private businesses and organizations for exercising their right to observe religion as they see fit.

Some critics have pointed out that most Christmas decorations and celebrations are secular events, anyway. You won’t find Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or the Grinch in any of the Scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth. And there is a lot of talk that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th. Of course, there’s a lot of people who go on to claim that Jesus was not born in that season, not in Bethlehem, does not really exist, and in fact is the creation of the Military-Industrial Complex of the Emperor Constantine … or Rush Limbaugh, take your pick. But we’re not going to talk about the Gores or the Kerry’s here today. Here’s the thing – when Christianity first got going, it was the oddest of paradigms; a religion which worshipped an all-powerful God who took human form as the son of a poor carpenter’s family, born without influence, money or status, who brought God’s truth and love but was rejected by the very class of believer who had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to appear, who lived a life of perfect obedience to the law but taught that even perfect obedience was not enough, that a person whose religion was imperfect but who loved God was better than a person whose deeds were mighty but selfish. He was rejected by the leading thinkers of his day, ignored by the very priests who served specifically to prepare for his arrival, falsely accused, tortured, then murdered publicly to advance a conspiracy between Herod and Caiaphas to prevent an uprising by the masses (which was delayed for a time but happened anyway in 70 AD). With one exception, his followers scattered, or were arrested and killed. That one exception was exiled to a barren island, where he wrote a weird tale about the Messiah coming back and ruling forever in a perfect kingdom. The leaders of Rome, Judea, and Judiasm all expected the strange little cult to die out, especially as Rome increased penalties for following this Christ, from fines to imprisonment, to banishment to torture and execution. Yet the faith kept growing, with more and more believers all the time, until the Emperor Constantine found it advantageous to throw his support behind the Christians. From there, the Church gained material and political power, until it became oppressive and hateful in its own character, and splintered to become something else. To this day there remain intense debates about who is a ‘true’ Christian, and what it means to believe this doctrine or that, but the essence of Christianity is Christ, the revealed truth of the Triune God, which is to say One God revealed to Humanity in power, love, and hope.

The Scriptures do not say exactly when Christ was born, but the event was clearly important. Choirs of Angels, supernatural lightshows, and so on make it clear that Jesus’ birthday was a big deal. This led to the practice of celebrating the birthday because of Christ, rather than the date. The December date was chosen for two simple reasons – first, between Hannukah and the Winter Solstice, there were a number of celebrations which allowed Christians to celebrate the birth of the Savior without being particularly obvious. Also, Jesus’ decision to live meekly and teach his followers the same meekness (meekness in this case means to avoid hostility, not to be weak or silent) of spirit, reminds us that Christ represents us all, and so just as no one day is known to be his birthday, so we celebrate a day to focus on the love of God and not to put one day above another, just as we should not put one person above another in worth.

Christmas is about Christ. All the semantics in the world cannot change that fact. But as Christians, we should remember that our celebration of Christ in Christmas came in disguise, so we could worship without calling undue attention to ourselves. Demanding that people who do not share our faith give way to our commands is not the way of Christ. Neither is it the way of Christ to pretend that Christmas is the same thing as other celebrations. We love our families and friends, but Christmas is not about family and friends. We love to give and help, but Christmas is not about social justice. Christmas is about all those things insofar as they are from and of God, but the essence of God, His love and truth and hope, the miracles that are the reality of goodness and the definition of holiness, these are things which must not be discounted or replaced with meaningless baubles and egotistical , humanist blather.

God is real, and came to us as Christ Jesus. Not in judgment of our sins and errors, but in forgiveness, healing and hope. Not in his right to command our every thought and deed, but living in perfect service, that we might come to understand the value and virtue of humility and selflessness. Not to claim his right to all power and glory, but to bring us all up as his children and as the people in whole we were always meant to be, full in service, potential, and joy. We celebrate Christmas the right way, by remembering and celebrating Christ, and seeking his will we find our own freedom and perfection.

Merry Christmas.