The birth of Jesus is what we celebrate, but the ways we celebrate are so unrelated to Jesus that it is hard to put it all together. How do we best honor the birth of someone like Jesus?
Two Sundays ago I taught the Christmas story to some children from our sister church, a Spanish speaking Mennonite church that meets next door to our church. As I prepared, I realized that I wanted to teach all the stories of angels related to the birth of Jesus.
First an angel appears to Zachariah, an elderly priest who with his wife is childless. The angel announces the coming birth of John the Baptist, who will prepare the way of the Lord. When John is born, Zachariah bursts out in a song of praise which includes his hope for politcal justice for an oppressed people. When John grew up and actually did start preparing the way of the Lord, he called people to real repentance. He let them know that their sense of belonging to their historic religious institutions was not preparation enough. He told them they could not be comfortable just because they were members of God's chosen people. They had to make their hearts right. They had to prepare. They had to repent. When they asked him what that meant in everyday terms, he said, "Anyone with two shirts should share with those who have none, and those with food should do the same." He told tax collectors to only collect what was necessary and told soldiers to be content with their pay and to be honest. All three instructions include reducing our attachment to accumulating possessions, and the first also includes making sure that those with needs get what they need.
An angel also came to Mary. Later when Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she also had a song of praise to God for what he was about to do. She spoke of bringing down the proud, the rulers, and the rich, while lifting up the humble and the hungry. There isn't much here either about God coming to make us feel good or be comfortable.
After the birth of Jesus angels also appeared, not in the synagogue or in the temple or in the home of the high priest...but to a group of shepherds in a nearby field. Why was that? Is it the beginning of bringing down the (religiously) proud and lifting up the humble?
And the star...it appeared to wise men from far away. This was also outside the established religious community.
So this is what I wonder about: Christmas seems to be about Jesus coming to change things. The announcements were to the poor, to the common laborers, and to those who were outside the 'chosen' people. So our celebration has to be tempered by that truth. Jesus also wants to change us. Jesus wants to change our hearts as well as how we live. For some of us the change in our hearts may bring about the change in how we live and in others it may come the other way around. The change in what we do may bring about the change in our hearts and attitudes. But either way, it has to be both. A relationship with God MUST include learning to be more like God, and that must include attitude as well as action. Maybe those of us who are part of the middle class established religious community need to humble ourselves and learn from those who first received the good news.
With what customs do we celebrate the author of the story of the rich man and Lazarus? How do we honor the one who commanded us to sell all we have and give the money to the poor? At this season, what does it mean that those who would be great must become the servant of all? How do we flesh out the idea that he who would save his life will lose it while he who is willing to lose his life for Christ's sake will save it? Because that is what Jesus did at Christmas...he gave up heaven so that he could come here and show us how to live and how to die.
Which of our customs and traditions would Jesus enjoy with us, and which would Jesus ignore, or even do away with?
If the first Christmas is any example these are a few things that stand out to me:
- God was extravagant in the fanfare announcing the birth of Jesus. A whole host of angels is pretty incredible!
- God spent that extravagance on the poor---shepherds were the only ones who actually witnessed this heavenly concert. Their response was to rush into town, see the baby, and tell everyone who would listen.
- There was also a star, which most people missed, but which was seen by some wise men as I mentioned before, who were from far away, and who were outside the chosen people.
- There was no event in the house of worship until later, and then only a couple of elderly people understood the significance of the infant they saw.
I'm not at the point of saying that we should not have celebrations in our churches. I'm far from that. Rather, I believe that our churches must take us back to who Jesus really is. Jesus is so much more than a nice Savior who keeps us out of hell. Jesus shows us that there is so much more to live for, and that there things worth dying for. We have to celebrate the coming of a Savior who gives us something worth dying for.
Extravagance is lavished on the poor. All are called to repentance and mercy and justice and holy living. Holy living is not holy without the mercy and justice and repentance. It's not just about being good. It is about making the world a better place, and about letting people know that God is about much more than rules and being good. Jesus was and is amazing and we must celebrate that.
So how do we include that in our celebrations of the birth of Jesus?
Here is one example.
My parents this year are spending many hours organizing donated food for distribution. The need is great during these harder economic times and the donations are down. The more they spend time working there, the more ownership they feel. They see the need more clearly than we who are more insulated. Their Christmas is colored by the way this service impacts them. By the time we celebrate our family Christmas, they will have already spent loads of time celebrating Christmas in a deeply faithful way. I don't know for sure, but my sense is that they have more clearly understood Christmas because of this. It has enriched their enjoyment of the Christmas worship services because they have participated in and been changed by the priorities of Jesus.