Christmas time can be so depressing. It brings out some of the worst features of commercialism and rubs them in our face. You can't escape, whatever your philosophical or religious belief.
Advertisements spur on feelings of guilt if you don't buy enough of the right kinds of consumer products for people you love. Creative financing is offered so that lenders can make even more profit. After all the purchases and returns we are thankful to have survived the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year..."
Yet, even though Christmas catalogs and debt accumulate (all to the near-ominous sound of Christmas carol elevator music), a secret and persistent flame still burns.
It is the flame of a revolutionary hope—hope for a better world, and a more just world. A society where the social order is turned upside down so that the poor are fed, and the greedy are relieved of their ill-gotten gains. It is something that people of any culture, any religious or philosophical background, can relate to.
What does Christmas have to do with us? What does this 2000 year old story have to do with our hope for a better world? Let’s take another look at the Christmas story:
Once upon a time, in a land far away, on the edge of a great empire, there was a people of an ancient culture. They possessed a storied past, and great literature, but they had been conquered by an imperial power who ruled by the sword. These people were occupied by foreign soldiers and ruled by corrupt locals who collaborated with the foreign oppressors. There were periodic revolts by local peasants and slaves, but they were put down mercilessly.
In the midst of this, a young unmarried girl becomes pregnant out of wedlock. One might think she would regret this development, but on the contrary, she finds in the anticipated birth of a child a reason to rejoice and to hope for a better world. In her joy and determination, she sings:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:46-53
She and her fiancée are then forced to make a difficult journey while she is in the last weeks of her pregnancy; this is to comply with the demands of their imperial rulers to register for a census. They are denied lodging in local inns. Homeless, the young family takes shelter in a stable, where the mother goes into labor and gives birth to a baby boy among barnyard animals, manure, and hay.
This is hardly a favorable beginning for a child…and things get worse. The local ruler, a collaborator who is kept in power through an occupation army, commits an act of terror. Convinced that a rebellion is brewing in the village where the young couple has just had their baby, he sends in a death squad to kill all the male children under a certain age.
Fortunately, the young family is privy to the information, so they flee into a neighboring country. There they wait until they receive news of the death of the corrupt locals, and thereafter, return to raise their son in their hometown.
After he grows up, the boy goes on to organize a movement for restoration, renewal, and reconciliation. It is composed of a coalition of fishermen, reformed prostitutes, the unemployed, and low-level public servants, with a cross-section of men and women, and people of different ethnic backgrounds. He himself was a carpenter before he became the leader of the movement.
The aims of the movement are clear from the very beginning:
A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.... Luke 3:4-5
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Luke 4:18-19
When you look at the Christmas story closely, you find a story of working-class people living in difficult times, in circumstances not too different from those faced by millions of people today. These are people who have a long history of struggle. They hope desperately for a revolution.
Mary, the young mother in the Christmas story, is supremely confident that the future will hold a revolution. Her song is about rulers being pulled down and the poor being filled. This revolutionary aspect of Christmas is also found in the popular Christmas carol, O Holy Night (Cantique de Noel). One verse of the carol states, "Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease!"
Whenever you get weary of Christmas and all the hoopla that surrounds it, remember that it is about more than just gifts; it is about the hope of a revolutionary transformation.
Whoever you are, have a revolutionary Christmas. Let us enter into 2015 to bring about restoration, renewal, and reconciliation. Let us give more than we take, let us hunger and thirst after righteousness. Let us make it a Merry Christmas.