by Rev. Mark Sandlin
(as edited and revised by Douglas C. Sloan)
A form of this this post originally appeared at The God Article
Christmas is a joke.
Specifically, the birth narratives found in the Gospel according to Matthew and in the Gospel according to Luke are insurgency narratives. They are not stories told as history – to analyze, critique, or correct them historically is to completely miss their purpose, completely misunderstand them, and completely misuse them. They are stories told for strictly non-historical purposes. The Matthew nativity either is a taunting parody of or a sly tongue-in-cheek jab at the magical/miraculous birth narratives told in the Roman Empire to elevate the status of certain rulers and military heroes. The Luke nativity is a marketing/evangelistic ploy told by a person living under military occupation and empire domination for the purpose of currying favor with and acceptance by those who rule the Roman Empire.
The baby we remember at this time of year was not part of the dominant culture. The non-empire sacred stories told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that fostered hopelessness and a survivor mentality – as designed and desired by the Empire.
Today, our religious stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. Originally, it was a story of an olive-skinned middle-eastern, unwed, as-young-as-14 mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky-smelling animal stall. Today, instead of that story, we end up with a clean, white skinned European woman in her early 20s giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.
For centuries, the Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. God’s vision of liberating the oppressed and the down trodden has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers-that-Be. Rather, it supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism and the big church agendas of political power and ecclesiastical empire.
If the Christmas Present, with its full on worship of consumerism and privilege, continues to masquerade as Christmas Past, our Christmas Futures will increasingly become a time when we give out of our abundance rather than out of a response to need and out of a response to God’s love – the kind of Christmas where we give amongst ourselves amidst our broad breadth of abundance. Meanwhile, the oppressed and the downtrodden and the marginalized and the unjustly incarcerated, watch our overindulgence and rightfully judge us by actions that run contrary to our sacred stories of a spirit-child born to bring light into the dark corners of the world.
- The people who walked in darkness
- have seen a great light;
- those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
- on them light has shined.
- NRSV Isaiah 9:2
That should be the dominant message of the Christmas narrative. Is it? Does the way we celebrate Christmas bring light into the darkness? Does it bring hope to the hopeless? Does our modern day Christmas celebration bring justice to those who have been treated unjustly?
If your answer is “No” then, whether you knew it or not, you too believe that the Christmas Past has been white-washed by the Christmas Present.
During this season, as we remember the birth of the light of the world, a child sent to enlighten the darkness, we also remember his words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (NRSV John 15:13) As we remember the humble, unassuming way he came into this world, let us not forget that he left this world among thieves, as an outsider hanging on a cross in an attempt to teach us something about God’s love.
This Christmas, I wish for you and for me, light in the darkness of the Christmas Present. I wish for us enlightenment from God – an enlightenment that helps us see clearly the love for all people that laid in a mythological and metaphorical manger some 2000 years ago – an enlightenment that encourages us to be the light to those trapped in the darkness of hunger, homelessness, oppression, poverty, and war – an enlightenment allowing us to see that we too have darkness in our lives – an enlightenment that helps us see beyond the cleaned up Christmas of the present to the humble, unassuming beginnings of our religion – a baby as King, born to an outsider – born to save the world from darkness.
War on Christmas? A war on what Christmas has become? A war on worshiping consumerism in the sacred halls of Walmart and Target and Best Buy and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Gander Mountain and every chain that sells clothes as a fashion statement and every sit-down restaurant chain with gluttonous portions and every upscale hotel chain while the world is swallowed up in the darkness of not having enough: food to eat, clothes to wear, places to live, clean water to drink, access to information and education, access to reasonable health care, and places of worship that practice inclusion over exclusion and largeness over largess? SIGN ME UP! I refuse to let the story of my faith be co-opted by secular and religious corporations who only wish to convince us that we are privileged and we deserve what we have and deserve it more than others and we should revel in our abundance and consider it a sign that we are chosen … even as we celebrate the birth of the rag-wrapped spirit-child who laid in a feeding trough, who lived his life with no place to lay his head, who told us that “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (NRSV Matthew 25:40) … who gave up his very life that we might fully understand and clearly see the full extent of divine love.