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The threat of Christmas

By Byron Elam

Special to The Post

Christmas is the celebration of God’s debut onto the scene of humanity. Christians believe that on Christmas God moved into our earthly neighborhood. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God is birthed into the world. And I’m afraid that we often miss the many implications and the meaning of the Nativity Story. The very essence of Christmas threatens the values and pursuits to which we have dedicated much of our lives. Jesus’ arrival upends and disrupts the status quo and the world as we know it.

God, who could have made any preparations for God’s birth, decides to be born among the lowly. He was born to young peasants entangled in a scandal, as Mary was unmarried at the time of conception. Jesus is born to a group of people under the crushing rule of Roman occupation. Jesus is born while unhoused, as a result of that Roman oppression. He is born unprivileged, poor, not well-connected, and on the wrong side of town. Nathanael (an apostle) asks in the first chapter of John, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Surely, nothing noteworthy could have emerged from that small, undesirable, and nondescript village in southern Galilee.

God decides not to be born among the wealthy, powerful, and noble. In fact, His birth frightens King Herod. The king enacts a genocide to snuff out the threat of Jesus. His parents flee to Africa for safety. God assumes humanity not with political power or the command of a vast army or dominant influence. While we worship daily at the idols of power, self-sufficiency, and individualism, God comes as a helpless and vulnerable child. God threatens and even turns upside-down the many ways that we have organized our society and our lives. 

According to the Lucan account, God gives Jesus’ first birth announcements to shepherds living in fields. The angels don’t make their announcement within the halls of power or even within a religious edifice. They show up on the outskirts of town. They appear to shepherds. Many biblical scholars contend that the shepherds were not highly valued on the scales of societal power. They had no noteworthy rank, but God decides to share with them first that Jesus was born. 

Christmas is God admonishing us through the loud-speaker of eternity that our market-values are often not consistent with God’s economy. In God’s economy the “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” At the heart of Christmas and all of the Gospel is God’s particular concern for the “least of these.” Christmas, truly, is not a capitalistic jackpot of superfluous shopping and spending. Rather, it is God taking up residence and solidarity with the marginalized. God is displaying God’s disapproval of our stratification of society, in which some are in and some are out, some have and some don’t. Christmas is God subverting political, economic, and religious power and shifting the paradigm of the world to be more just, equitable, and loving.

If we are to be true to Christmas and the Gospel, we should follow God’s example of concern for the “least of these” – those that Jesus reminds us about Matthew 25 (the poor, the hungry, the sick, the incarcerated, and the stranger). We should repent of our genuflection and acquiescence to wealth, power, and indifference to the suffering all around us. We should resist the temptation to rush to the salvific ramifications of Christ’s birth and deal with what God has to say about the world today and now. Eternal salvation is important, but the incarnation and Christmas have more to say about our world and society that it does about going to Heaven when we die. We should ask the question, where would Jesus be born today? And where are our Nazareths today? Where are the places in our community that are undesirable in our view?

Perhaps He would be born among the nearly 50% of Madison County households that struggle to afford their most basic needs? Or maybe He would be among the third of children in Madison County that live in poverty? We do know that Jesus would be among the poor and those often forgotten about. He would also be about the work of empowering and liberating those on the margins of society through revolutionary acts of love, as He did through His birth and throughout His life. Wherever we think are the places that nothing good comes out of is precisely where we would find Jesus today.

Our observance of Christmas, and even our identification as Christians, have become too innocuous. We are far, far removed from the itinerant preacher and political revolutionary from Nazareth that upset political and religious authorities so much so that He was executed. We have neatly packaged Christmas and the Gospel to fit into our lives and our world. Celebrating Christmas, like attending church, has become a part of our socially acceptable presentation to the society. We have lost our conception of the profound rearrangements that Christmas implies for our lives and the world.

Our indifference, privilege, and worldly pursuits and values are threatened by Christmas. The Child in the manger invites into a more loving and liberating way of life. Sacrificial and revolutionary love that reorders our world in the way God intended is the invitation of Christmas. May we accept this invitation and not resist this threat. I hope that we no longer allow the shopping, decorating, and carols to obscure our view of the Christ Child and all that His birth and life means to our living and being today.

Byron Elam is the former Chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party and a seminarian at Lexington Theological Seminary. He can be contacted at ebyronelam@gmail.com.

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