Recently, I was asked to give a talk at my church. Bet you didn’t know this about Mormons–we don’t get sermons. Instead, members speak on assigned topics. Mine was “Celebrating Christ.” I was up one night trying to get some work done when, thinking about a cartoon I’d seen recently (below) I opened a vein and this spilled out. Of course, I had to introduce it by talking about comics, and then things change a little when you’re speaking, but what you see below correlates at better than .95 with what I said.
Think of it as a Christmas card.
Everybody wants signs and wonders and miracles.
We long for the star, and the wise men, and the gold, frankincense and myrrh. We don’t generally know what they are, but we long for them. Christmas trees have a special resonance for us. Years ago, I was riding through a pine grove in northern Wisconsin when the smell hit me and it was just Christmas. We look for the heralding angels, and sing glory to his name. We join the shepherds in adoring the glorious child, who seems (in most depictions) to have come into this world with no blood or messy umbilical cord, no spit-up or other bodily secretions.
We know that we would be among the crowds welcoming the King to Jerusalem, that we would be fed with the loaves and the fishes, that we would be like Mary, not Martha. We would listen, and have ears to hear. We would not be sad-sack Sadducees, denying the resurrection, or legalistic, formalistic, persnickety Pharisees. We would not be Judas, betraying the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. We would follow him on his tragic march to the cross, and not turn away like Peter, oh, poor Peter!
We would be there at the resurrection, excited, pleased to see our Lord again, never having doubted the fact of his resurrection.
And yet, and yet.
The simpler truth is that Jesus was born poor, in a disrespected part of an occupied country. Bethlehem, the house of bread, was not well-respected. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” scoffed Nathaniel. As we might scoff at someone from certain sections of New Haven or Bridgeport. He wasn’t stunning. He almost certainly wasn’t the pale, red-haired, ringleted figure we glimpse in “sacred” art. He was likely dark in appearance, but we don’t know. There is not one word in the New Testament, in the four gospels that recount his ministry, that describes him. He could be anyone. As the song says, “What if God was one of us?”
The simpler truth is that this King told us to reject sectarianism and to care for all people as if they were ourselves. This radical egalitarianism went so far that when he was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded not with one, but with two. The first he drew from Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The second, which he said was “like the first,” from the the Lord’s speech to Moses in the Book of the Law, Leviticus: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And lest that message not sink in, he told us who our neighbor was—not the man of the same faith, or even the same nationality. What made a neighbor, the King told us, was not who you were, but how you acted. Neighbors have mercy on one another. “Go thou and do likewise.”
The simpler truth is that this King was not the one the Pharisees had expected. He was not the warrior come to overthrow the occupiers. He wasn’t even there to take command of the Pharisees! Instead, he broke bread with the poor, the drunken, and the despised (whoever said the only sure things in life were death and taxes should have included hatred of tax collectors!). This king stood between the (self) righteous and the woman taken in adultery. He forgave, over, and over, and over.
And then he died, forgiving. And even Peter, the Rock, poor Peter, couldn’t believe in what was going to happen next.
In the almost 2,000 years since then, this king’s name has been abused and exploited. Many people have sought to use this king as some kind of figurehead or totem. The armor of soldiers in countless wars has borne the legend “God with us.” Often, both sides in a conflict have worn that same motto. Not so surprising then that the singer tell us that we’ll “have to decide/whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.”
But this king won’t have that message distorted. Down the centuries, down the millennia, it is a message the content of which has appealed more to the poor and downtrodden than it has to the rich and the powerful. Why is that? It could be, as the poet’s version of Job puts it, that “God is best viewed from an ash heap.” But I think it’s something more.
It’s the fundamental message that underlies this king’s words and actions. That the accusers are no better than the woman taken in adultery. The priest is no better than the tax collector. The levite no better than the Samaritan. And vice-versa.
In this king, in Christ, there are no superiors and no inferiors. We are all the same. Little wonder then, that “when you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God.”
Christmas is a wonderful time for miracles and wonders, for lights in the sky and on the tree. For gifts and giving, for love and mulled cider. To read A Christmas Carol or watch “A Christmas Story.” For fat elves and flying reindeer, too. We celebrate because we are amazed at the condescension of God, the presentation of his son, to us! Who cares if we have the date wrong, or if we’ve hauled in celebratory traditions from elsewhere. This is the world’s biggest birthday party! Celebrate!
But in all of that celebrating, don’t dare to forget the words and example of that poor carpenter’s son from benighted Nazareth. Because that is the Christ we celebrate, if we dare.