Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.

Light in the dark places

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper′na-um, do here also in your own country.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli′jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli′jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar′ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli′sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na′aman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city… Luke 4:16-29a NRSV

P1080389This passage came back to me this week as I have been reading Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. It took me back to a staff retreat day in March, 2010, where I first met my friend and mentor Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, a day that changed my life. She used this passage of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry to launch into her topic which was the church in dark places.

This week as I read Dr Bailey’s chapter on this passage, I was struck anew as to just how radical Jesus was with his message of loving God and loving our neighbors. Dr. Bailey writes that Jesus took a very familiar passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1-7, and edited it as he read to bring a new message to these people. These folks knew this passage as a prophecy which would put them in charge and their oppressors underneath them, to be dealt with as they had done. And Jesus turned it on its head. He uses sermon examples of Gentiles being open to faith in Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, not of conquering Hebrew heroes like David or Solomon. And where they had thought his sermon started out well, in the end they just wanted to kill him.

The points that Bailey makes that strike me are these:

  • Salvation comes from beyond the community; it is not community generated.
  • Ministry involves proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion. Compassion is meant to inform both witness and advocacy.
  • And lastly, “Jesus refuses to endorse the narrow nationalism of his own community. Instead he stands in prophetic judgment over it.”

It’s not really a text for Advent, and yet that is when I am taking this all in, and recent news stories cause me to stop and think about it.

I wonder what Jesus would think coming to the U.S. as many of us light the candles of Advent leading up to Christmas?

Watching the news yesterday morning I heard a story about one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year: a new gun. The store owner interviewed even stated that “best way you can show love to your loved ones this year is “to give them a gun.” For the ladies they even had thigh holsters covered in bling.

We have had the president of a Christian university declare to the student body that if more of them had concealed-carry permits, “we could end those Muslims.”

We have presidential candidates talk about shutting doors to Muslims, carpet bombing Syria until the desert sands glow, hating the media (“But I wouldn’t kill them,” added as an afterthought), and insulting every ethnic/gender/faith group except the one that looks like them.

We have people saying, “Merry Christmas!” like it is a threat instead of an invitation or salutation.

We get up in arms because a huge chain of coffee shops has a red “holiday” cup instead of a “Christmas” cup, but pay $7 for the coffee anyway.

But where are we when the only cup that really matters is lifted humbly with a plate of bread? The cup poured out for all that we might have life. The cup of the one for whom we light those candles each week.

I am grateful for that day back in March, 2010, when Marilyn introduced me to the church in dark places, for I have been gifted to walk with them in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. They remind me that Jesus is not an American, not a pandering politician, not a guy peddling $7 coffee in a red cup, not a guy carrying a gun with a concealed-carry permit, not a it’s-Merry-Christmas-not-happy-holidays! season’s greeter yelling back at the customer service rep.

He is the Christian woman declaring on a bus stopped by Syrian rebels that the young Alawite man next to her is her son, and they may not take him.

Basrah crossHe is in the Shi’ite neighbors guarding the church in Basrah, saying that rebels will not bomb this church.

He is in the evangelical school in Tripoli, in Sidon, in Kirkuk, in Baghdad, in Aleppo, in Homs, educating Christian and Muslim together in the ethics of reconciliation.

He is in the woman of the Bekaa Valley who ministers to the refugees of the war next door, knowing that her own family is in danger.

He has come from outside of every community, in judgment over our selfishness, our hatred, our greed, our twisting of the meaning of his birth.

He offers us the compassion of his lifeblood poured out for us and invites us to the table of grace.

He is the mighty God, prince of peace, wonderful counselor. He is Immanuel, God with us.

He is the light of the world.

Let us light the candles for this one.

(References from Dr. Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, are found in chapter 12, The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry.)