Like most kids, when I was growing up I looked forward to Christmas with eager anticipation. With each passing day the excitement heightened. I constantly fantasized about how wonderful it would be when Christmas finally arrived. Inevitably, when I got tucked into bed on Christmas Eve I found that I couldn’t go to sleep because I was too excited. Consequently, it seemed like the longest night of the year.
Most of us adults don’t look to Christmas with such trembling joy. More likely we think about all the extra work that must be done before the big day. Still, despite the lack of the simple, innocent exuberance we once had about Christmas, many of us still find our hearts stirred at this time of year. It could hardly be otherwise since there are so many good experiences and warm memories most of us associate with this season.
In the midst of all the busyness, ministers – and an assortment of others – offer reminders that Christmas is above all about Jesus Christ. And so it is important that we, as the familiar refrain says, “put Christ back into Christmas.” That sounds reasonable enough. But would we look forward to Christmas with greater enthusiasm if the real Christ was more fully “in” it?
The first Christmas was certainly not greeted with open arms by everyone. For instance, King Herod had some serious reservations, to say the least (Luke 2:1-15). He didn’t look to Christmas with glee but with dark suspicion. For him Christmas was a threat, an unwelcome challenge. He knew that with the birth of Christ the King, life could no longer be the same. But he didn’t want the change. Herod didn’t look upon the Christ-child as a cute and harmless bundle of joy! Jesus Christ dropped into his world like an exploding bomb. Herod’s response was murderous. He did his best to quite literally “take Christ out of Christmas.”
Herod would have been just fine with a Christmas of presents, decorations and music. But it was that baby that annoyed him so much. For him Christmas could never be a pleasant and harmless affair. Not if there was a new born king. He knew that this particular baby would not leave things alone.
King Herod wasn’t the only one who realized that fact. So did our Lord’s mother, Mary. For her the baby was reason for joy. She anticipated that the One within her would bring the sort of change she as a vulnerable young woman, a commoner, could gladly embrace. Not able to contain herself, Mary sang:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-47, 51-52).
If Mary was right about Jesus, then Herod had little reason to look forward to a “Merry Christmas.” His interests, as one who sat on the top of the world, were not likely to be served by One who would turn the world upside-down. But for the many, the coming of Jesus was reason for celebration. Whatever challenge he brought to the world would be seen as something to be happily welcomed.
It was no accident that the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the minimum wage workers on the night shift, those shepherds in the field. They were not God’s second choice, selected only because no one could be found in the royal court at that hour to hear the wonderful words. Rather, the undignified shepherds were the divinely preferred recipients of the greatest news ever told. Later Jesus would identify as a hallmark of his ministry that “the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22).
In keeping with what Mary anticipated, Jesus taught, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). He also pointed toward a reversal of fortunes on the horizon by saying “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31, also Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Luke 13:30) and “whoever wants to be great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:43, Matthew 20:26) and “whoever wants to enter the kingdom of God must do so like a child” (Mark 10:15, also Matthew 18:3). Swaggering power and prideful privilege was given no respect by the grown up Christmas boy.
With a view to such scriptures, some Christians who are involved in the Occupy movement have recently been saying, “God is with the 99%!” I hesitate to echo this claim only because it sounds a bit too much like those who go into war declaring, “God is on our side.” Surely, God loves the wealthiest 1% as well. But they get no preferential treatment. Instead they are given warnings (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25). Scripture suggests that our Lord identifies with the least advantaged people in a way he does not identify with the most privileged (Matthew 25:31-46). Because of this, I can’t understand why any Christian would support policies or practices that disproportionately empower the powerful or further advantage the over-privileged and accept the claim that doing so is the best way to help everyone else. To do so seems to require that we ignore Jesus, from his birth forward.
Do we really want to keep Christ in Christmas? If we do, this will be a season for more than presents, pleasant carols and colorful decorations. We would do well to position ourselves so we can better welcome the changes Mary envisioned. We can do this by looking out for the interests of those who are weak, poor and suffering. If Christ of the Gospels is truly in Christmas then we shouldn’t be surprised if we experience both joy and challenge. In fact our deepest joy will most likely be found as we give our lives over to his challenge to follow him in ways of love, peace and selfless service.
Craig M. Watts is minister of Royal Palm Christian Church, Coral Springs, Florida. He is also Co-Moderator Disciples Peace Fellowship and author of Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005). His many essays have appeared in Cross Currents, the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Encounter, DisciplesWorld and elsewhere.