A Subversive Christmas
Twice today I was asked what I wanted for Christmas. Christmas has always been a bit of a love/hate relationship for me. It’s great to see family. It’s great to have some time off school. It is nice to just be able to celebrate life during the darkest part of the year that can otherwise be on the depressing side. And of course, as Christians we want to remember the radical incarnation of God in Jesus.
But then there’s the materialism. Some marketing geniuses along the way figured out the potential to sell this holiday, as they did with Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween/All Saints Day, etc. As a generality, the two most important parts of Christmas in North America are usually the gifts and the dinner. At least the dinner has a bit of redemption in it to me because it is still largely about the people, at least in my family. But even with that I see more stress in the preparations and making sure everything is just right, because to be sure, the host will be told repeatedly if they “screwed up Christmas.” I don’t wish to demean either of those practices, and I do think there is a lot of potential for great love in them. But I’d also argue that most of us have lost the point of Christmas.
This is where a lot of sermons would say “Jesus is the reason for the season” or some other equally not-witty-but-thinks-it’s-witty line. Yeah, that’s true, but so what? Often that means remember to go to church, or to pray over the meal, or to set up a nativity scene in your living room, or to throw around Jesus’ name a bit extra in the dinner conversation. And then you return to opening your $1000 worth of gifts, half of which you’ll never look at again after that day. Is that honouring to the real purpose of the Christmas story? I can’t help but feel like we’re still completely missing the point.
Earlier today I came across a sermon series by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church called “Celebrating a Subversive King.” And by came across I mean my BlackBerry beeped at me, because its one of the few podcasts I regularly follow, and I found the timing quite convenient since earlier in the day I had been asked what I wanted. He put a lot of my thinking on Christmas into words much better than I could, and much better than I am doing here, so I really suggest checking that out.
The gist of the series is that Christmas, theologically defined by the incarnation, was a very subversive point in history. When you actually dig into the story within its context – apart from the fairy tale version we usually see it as – then it is fairly obvious. Jesus came to be a king, but a very different kind of king, being above the empire culture. With that is a very different kingdom culture, and there are lots of glimpses ahead even within the Christmas story. Mary’s Magnificat (song) declares the social freedoms to be brought. Mary is an unmarried mother, making her worthless by the cultural standards to a potential husband like Joseph (it wasn’t necessarily considered sinful by all segments of Judaism, but nobody wanted to marry a woman who brought with her another man’s baby). The shepherds are close to the lowest within Jewish society, and the magi aren’t pagans instead of Jewish at all. If you do a basic obvious reading of the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is a pretty huge theme, and it is there right from the incarnation that started its declaration.
So Christmas comes around as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, of the birth of the bringing of this new kingdom. And how do we celebrate it? We do the most buying into the earthly kingdom of any time of the year. We spend a lot of money because culture says this is the time we have to do so. We try to mask it by saying that it is about Jesus, but really, if it was about Jesus wouldn’t we celebrate in a more Kingdom-fashion? At the end of the sermon, Greg issued a challenge to find ways to celebrate Jesus’ birth in a way that would actually honour Jesus. Their particular church is raising funds for wells in Haiti, and they suggest even something like buying somebody 3 gifts instead of 4, and giving the money for the fourth to that fund. I’d echo that challenge in whatever way that looks like for you. For me, I had already requested my parents to buy significantly less this year (I gave them a dollar limit but I won’t post that here) and donate whatever else they would normally spend on me to either to Mennonite Central Committee or Compassion Canada. I don’t know what that is for you, but I’d encourage you to really think about living the counter-cultural Kingdom of God this Christmas.