The Politics of Christmas

In the midst of all of the chatter about the so-called “war on Christmas,” I have become intrigued with a theme in the narrative of Luke 1 and 2. Here are some examples.

In the song that she sings during her visit with Elizabeth, Mary says:

[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts

He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted the humble.

In the same Chapter, Zechariah, John’s father, will celebrate that God has “raised up a horn of salvation” in Jesus. He says:

[God brings] salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us….

[God acts] to rescue us from the hand of our enemies

Later, the prophetess Anna, after seeing the young baby Jesus begins to speak – we are told: “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

What fascinates me about this is that all of these characters see the birth of the Messiah as a subversive political event. God will act through Christ, they say, to bring down rulers and deliver the lowly from the hands of those who oppress them. It is an announcement that those who stand in power, and who use it abusively, are about to be reckoned with. This is in fulfillment, of course, to a central – but often ignored theme in the Psalms and the Prophets – God’s “reclamation” of his world by bringing down what is often referred to as “the Nations.”

The means by which this would be accomplished, of course, would have to be fleshed out in the remainder of Luke’s gospel. Jesus would call people to live under God’s reign, refusing to deploy the tools of violence and oppression that are used by those in power. They should also follow his example as a prophetic voice, speaking against and exposing abuses of power in both religious and political institutions.

The first Christmas, then, was distinctly anti-authoritarian in tone, announcing the imminent removal of those who haughtily fancied themselves as in charge. The birth of Jesus was a warning to them that their time was short. God was about to bring them to ruin and lift up the humble.

In USAmerica, where Christianity has practically become a civil religion, the idea that God is acting to remove nations from power has completely vanished from the celebration of Christmas. Worse yet, the notion that Christians as a whole should imitate Jesus in speaking against and exposing the abuse of power in their government is completely foreign to most Christians. We are not known for our pronouncements against oppression so much as our pronouncements against those who don’t like us (the counter-attack against the “war on Christmas” being a prime example).

Any suggestion that the Christmas event might call us to speak into our civic and religious institutions with the prophetic voice (joining with the voices of Mary, Zechariah, Anna, and the like) is not so much controversial as it is simply absent. Christians think that they are in power. And for those who are in power (or at least engaged in a struggle to hang onto it), the undesirable realities of Advent are better ignored than confronted.

That is why I think that all of the hub-ub about the so-called “war on Chirstmas” is a giant distraction. The question that is posed in this debate is whether those in power should acknowledge or ignore the Christmas event, the assumption being that it is a relatively benign phenomenon in any event. But for me, the more relevant question is this: How did the idea of Christmas become so watered down, so de-politicized, that those who are in power do not even consider it to be a threat?

I wonder: if Christians “did” Christmas in the way of Mary, Zecharaiah, and Anna, would a civic celebration of such a subversive event even be a consideration?

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