Finding the true spirit of Christmas

By Blogger Dean Bill Ellis

Rev. Bill Ellis

Literature has produced two famous Christmas haters, The Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge, both of whom were transformed into Christmas lovers.  As wonderful as these stories are — and they are both wonderful stories — they are part of what can only be described as the ongoing and highly successful domestication of Jesus, a movement so subtle we mostly haven’t noticed it, so successful that on the whole we approve of it.

Over the centuries the “meaning of Christmas” has come to be the idea that we ought really to be much nicer to each other all year around than normally we are.  We have at times enlisted St. Nicholas in this cause, turning him into an enforcer whose purpose is to reward nice children and ignore, or punish, naughty ones. It is, by the way, a perfectly good idea to be nice to each other, and the world might even be a better place if we were all a bit nicer.  I doubt it, but it could be.  What I am certain of is that this notion, laudable as it is, has nothing whatsoever to do with the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, which were statements so radical that Roman society first rejected them outright as frauds, and then, when the empire finally became Christian, hid their meaning – perhaps even accidentally – in a dense cloud of Imperial majesty so thick that no one, least of all the leaders of the church, could tell what had happened.

The simplest and most obvious meaning of Matthew’s birth narrative is that the whole world stands as one before the love of God made known in Christ.  There are no longer any “us” or “them,” there is only the common humanity we all share, and thus the ways we divide and dehumanize each other along lines of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, are inherently wrong and opposed to the will of God.  Luke’s narrative offers a related message; God is present in this world not necessarily in marching armies and imperial palaces, but far from the centers of power, in the lowly and disenfranchised. INRI are the true initials of God in this world. The first Christians demonstrated by their behavior that they understood this very well, but as Christianity grew in political and social power these meanings were deconstructed out of existence.  It isn’t any wonder; you can’t run a decent society if everyone internalizes these truths so completely as to be transformed by them.  As Karl Barth pointed out most of a century ago, the Gospels – and Jesus himself – are far too wild either for domestic society or organized religion.  Lest anyone think I am being self-righteous here, I must say I concur with this majority report.  Jesus is far too wild, far too overwhelming for me.  I would much rather try to be nice.

But even so, perhaps this Christmas season we might begin by realizing that the spirit of this season is not captured by being nice, even very nice.  It is captured by being just, by being compassionate, by noticing the difference between the way the world is and the way we know it could be, by refusing to invoke a sense of helpless innocence as a way of not dealing with the dehumanizing tendencies of modern society.  For we cannot change the world until the true spirit of Christmas has changed us, and then because it has changed us, we will change the world.

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2 responses to “Finding the true spirit of Christmas

  1. Amen to that—all of it. And thank you. Then … I wish we could extend this thinking about Christmas to include our relation to everything, i.e. creation and all its mundane and splendid creatures. Jesus’ life and ministry, for which the birth narratives are overtures, was witness to the prior and on-going presence of God in the way all things are. We have this human inclination to think only, or at least primarily, about our relation to other human beings, but it should be kept in mind that we are only one of countless lives and processes that make up the way things are. Before it turned Jesus’ message on its head with regard to human relations Christianity’s majority report had already largely dismissed, perverted, or simply ignored Jesus’ meaning for the natural world and humanity’s place in it. If we were able to heed that broader meaning, good news indeed for it always moves toward life despite the presence of contrary challenges, then we might move toward getting our human house in order as well.

  2. Well said! If we can heed that, especially year round, the world would look much different wouldn’t it?

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