The Domestication of Christmas
There is a problem with Christmas. The problem is that it has become domesticated. Its earth shattering, revolutionary character has been covered up by saccharine and Santa Claus. The Christmas stories found in Luke and Matthew have become so familiar that most people no longer hear what the gospel writers are saying. The meaning of the incarnation has been smothered by the sentimentality the church has laid over Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels and the infant Jesus.
To see how domesticated this celebration of the incarnation has become consider the following:
• The God of the universe, the creator of all that has been, all that is, and all that will be entered humankind through the flesh, blood and water of Mary’s womb. The fullness of God became a helpless baby.
• The fullness of God became a helpless baby born to a young Jewish girl betrothed to a simple carpenter living in a region known for insurrection. Mary gave birth to Jesus in the equivalent of a barn and laid the infant in a feed trough. Why did God choose Mary of Nazareth rather than a daughter of one of the priests or scribes in Jerusalem, or a member of the emperor’s family? God chose to enter into humankind as a child of the poor and humble.
• The birth was announced first to shepherds in the field. God chose to give the good news of the incarnation to poor laborers who made their living with their hands. Because they worked with animals, the shepherds were often treated as outcasts. Why did God not send the angels to the religious authorities so they would be the first to hear the good news? Why did God not send the angels to the Emperor or Governor of Judea?
• According to the Matthew, soon after Jesus’ birth King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to murder all boys two years old and younger. Those boys were killed for the crime of being like Jesus. They were also killed because the incarnation was rightly perceived by the powers of the world to be a real threat to their order.
We see in these four points that the incarnation is God’s surprising, revolutionary entry into human history. It tells us that God acts in unexpected ways through unlikely, even disreputable, people. It also tells us that the powers and principalities of the world, represented by Herod, rightly see God’s action in and through Mary as a real threat to them and the status quo. The good news and meaning of the incarnation are beautifully expressed in the song of Mary:
“My soul magnifies the Lord.
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever”
(Luke 1:46b-55, NRSV).
Christmas is good news for the poor and all who are poor in spirit. It is not good news for the powerful and wealthy who seek to increase their power and wealth through violence and domination because the one whose birth we celebrate is the crucified and risen Lord who is coming again to set things right, just as Mary said he would.