Christmas disturbs me this year. Usually, I hear in the Christmas story the announcement that the prophetic insight encapsulated in the phrase “Immanu-el (Hebrew, “God is with us”; Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23) has found ultimate expression in the birth of a child. Christmas usually reminds me that God wants communion with human beings, created in God’s image, to such a degree that God was willing come to us as an infant child. Christmas usually reminds me that we do not have to speculate about the character of the God, mysterious and majestic, who created the universe. Instead, God so desires to reveal
Godself to us, to be known, that God not only communicate through the wonder of creation and the words of scripture, but also speaks God’s best Word to us in the form of a human being. Christmas usually reminds me that God does not abandon God’s intentions for creation, despising the world and people in it because of their imperfection and sin. Rather, “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This year, in contrast, I hear the Christmas story as a prophetic indictment of the culture in which I live, and, indeed, of certain perversions of Christianity I see and hear in the media. The Immanuel theme remains fundamental and true, of course. Yet, the presence of “God with us” also shines the light of truth and love on the falsity and darkness of the world.
God’s son was born into poverty. God’s son was born while his human parents were on their way to pay taxes to an imperial system designed to maintain its power and wealth by subjugating and impoverishing people like them all over the Mediterranean world. God’s son was born in the ancient equivalent of a garage because his parents could find no better place. Angels heralded his birth, not to the prominent members of society, but to the lowliest laborers. Foreigners came to pay homage, not the leading clergy, and certainly not the rulers.
To the contrary, Herod, the nominally-Jewish king, a petty tyrant in power solely because of his usefulness to the imperial powers, fearful of losing power, ordered the massacre of all the male children in Jesus’ age cohort. Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt as refugees from this “slaughter of the innocents” to return to Israel only after Herod’s death.
In the ironic timing of history, the motifs and memes of this Christmas season offer jarring juxtapositions and cutting contradictions that parallel the first Christmas in ways that do not comfort and assure but indict and accuse. Setting aside for another context the questions of whether a nation can be “Christian” (it cannot) and whether the United States was founded on “Christian principles” (it was not; the Constitution mentions religion only in a rejection of a religious test for office and in the protection of its free exercise, with neither governmental support nor interference), nominally-Christian public discourse this Christmas season seems to call more for actions aligned with those of the nominally-Jewish tyrant over two thousand years ago than with the character of God revealed in the infant Immanuel and, more importantly perhaps, in the acts and words of Jesus of Nazareth.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matt 25:31-45 NRSV)
May “God with us” this Christmas remind us that “us” refers to refugee Muslim children, the poor, the incarcerated, and the homeless. May “God with us” this Christmas remind us that God comes to us bringing God’s Kingdom, not to undergird the status quo. May “God with us” this Christmas remind us that God calls us to make peace, not to defend privilege.