As Christians we like to talk about the “true” meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ of course. This has even made for a good Christmas political campaign ad in the past. Sometimes it seems as if certain Christians think it’s sufficient to just mention more loudly than culture what the season is really “all about.” Doing so gives a kind of cursory feeling of living counter-culturally and of being faithful to the Great Commission. And it’s usually accompanied by abstract proclamations of love, joy, peace and hope. I can’t help think again of the verse about “those who give assurance of peace when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). But we know that beneath the surface there is much more to what Christ’s advent really signifies.
We live in an age when people aren’t hearing or seeing the Christmas story as relevant anymore. On the one hand, we don’t worry about this too much, but on the other hand, have we ever asked why? There’s so much craziness around the holidays at church. Living nativities for example – what does this really communicate? Do the people putting them on even know? I’m not meaning to be cynical here; I genuinely wonder. No doubt there are many reasons for society’s disenchantment, but I submit that at least one of them is the failure, in church, to name and confess the biggest sins of our people – social sins like war, coercive free trade agreements with South Korea, exploitation, environmental degradation, and excessive accumulation and resource consumption, or the personal ones like lust, addiction, fear, pride and insecurity. And I mean like really concretely speak of them, by giving tangible examples and talking about them in the open, admitting our brokenness and mourning over the great, great costs that society and especially the global periphery has borne as a consequence.
The other tendency one notices is paradoxically related. You see it in evangelical contexts particularly, but not only there. It’s the use of the birth of Jesus as another chance to talk about the death of Jesus, and how it functions as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. The danger in this case is similar in that, while harping some on individual sins, the message usually goes straight to celebrating what we get from this exchange. The other problem is that the real richness of the Incarnation itself is lost, and Jesus is separated too much from God the Father. It likewise precludes any grieving of the darkness around us and in ourselves. Much like Holy Saturday, Advent is not yet the time for triumph. With all of the devastation, agony and uncertainty in the world, it is right and even essential to say that God has unfinished work. And even after the resurrection, which is a central part of God’s mission, the all-important restoration of creation and the dead is still pending.
Thus there is at least a twofold function to the Incarnation that we can speak of without yet getting to atonement.
First, Jesus’s birth into a political climate under the reign of the ruthless King Herod highlights the stark contrast between God’s way and the way of worldly power. The lowliness, marginality and vulnerability that characterize Jesus’s family and historical setting invokes the theme of solidarity that he and therefore God has with the subjugated peoples of the world. This includes especially the undocumented, the foreigner, the jobless, the sick, the elderly, the lonely, the prisoner, the troubled veteran, the homeless, the hungry and the uninsured. As the one who’s first words at the beginning of his ministry were about proclaiming liberation to persons such as these, perhaps this is where our Christmas reflection should also begin.
Secondly, the Incarnation doesn’t just say that God is with us and for us. It also echoes, in continuity with the Jewish prophetic tradition what God is against:
“All sufferers can find comfort in the solidarity of the [Incarnate One]; but only those who struggle against evil by following [his] example will discover him at their side. To claim the comfort of the Incarnation while rejecting [God’s] way is the advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology.”[i]
The manor in which Jesus experiences the realities of life on earth in the birth narratives protests all human ambitions that lead to domination, exclusion and oppression. From sleeping with animals and fleeing to Egypt, to growing up in Nazareth and being raised by a carpenter, Jesus manifests God’s partiality for the underside of history and defends the case of the sinned-against.
The themes of solidarity with the victims and the condemnation of injustice are later supplemented by the atonement by Christ for the perpetrators. Only God can bring complete healing and reconciliation, and it’s true that we are all perpetrators to some extent – even the poor among us. We should not romanticize their plight. The question is not whether we are totally innocent, however – no one is; rather, as Baylor’s Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis explains, it’s whether we’re moving toward Community on the one hand or Empire on the other. Ellis also says that for Christians, unlike Jews, they kind of have to downplay the messianic if they want to properly emphasize the prophetic. At least for this season and context, I think he might be right.
There is another lesson from the Incarnation then. Henri Nouwen says that “we read the Word[/Christ] so that the Word[/Christ] can become flesh and have a whole new life in us.” He seems to be hinting here at the idea of theosis – that is, our sanctification and transformation into the image of the invisible God. This change in us, however gradual and inconsistent, also demands a conversion of some kind, a repentance or “turning around” as John the Baptist insisted.
I like the words to a song my friend Tripp Fuller wrote and recently sang on his podcast which inspired part of this reflection:
“Pattern all your calculating
and the world we are creating
to the Advent we’re awaiting.
Come Lord Jesus come.”