Friday, December 16, 2005

Competing Christmases

There has been so much discussion and arguing about "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas". But I have my own internal war going on regarding Christmas.

For me, Christmas has often been about warm, sweet images. You know the kind I'm talking about: chestnuts on a open fire, a newborn wrapped in a cloth and lying peacefully as an adoring mother looks on and "ponders these things in her heart". It's all quite the Hallmark-type of moment, isn't it? Sweet as syrup. Gentle as a breeze on a warm summer's day.

But there's another side to Christmas. A radical, turn-the-world-inside-out-Christmas. The prophets who wrote before Jesus was born, and are quoted by the biographers/Gospel writers after Jesus was born, use such imagery. "Every valley will be exalted and every hill made low." Think about that. If your life is a valley, filling it in, lifting it up, that sounds pretty good, right? But what if your life is a mountain or a hill? What does it take to level a mountain? Some bulldozers, heavy equipment, and a few sticks of TNT. (At least that's what they used on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons to level, smash or demolish.) If your life is a "hill" and is going to be "made low", that doesn't sound so good. If you have a comfortable life, money in the bank, a good job, decent education, happy family life, and are in good health, who wants to have their life "leveled"?

Or what about the words Jesus co-opts from the prophet in his first sermon in church. (BTW, do you realize Jesus had relatively few recorded sermons/teachings in the synagogue? The vast majority of what we have him saying occurred in homes, at parties, along the road, or at the beach in a boat, or on the side of a hill.)

This day Jesus says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has appointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come."

Again, this is good news IF you are the one who is "poor" or "downtrodden" or a "captive". But NOT so good if you're the one actually doing the oppressing. Jesus promises a revolution; a major renovation of the world order.

This same idea shows up in our Christmas songs too. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" contains a verse I love. "Hail the Heav'n-born Prince of Peace. Hail the Sun of Righteousness. Light and life to all he brings. Ris'n with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glories by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, 'Glory to the newborn King'."

That's radical stuff. The Sun of Rigthteousness rising with healing in his wings is out of Malachi, in the last chapter of the last book of the Hebrew scriptures. The last thing the Christian canon has before the birth of Jesus. They were longing, waiting, for one to come who would have healing powers and abilities, so the legend went, who would have healing abililty in the very fringes of his being. (Gives a new meaning to the story of the woman in Mark who reaches out to Jesus, hoping to simply touch the hem, or "fringe" of his garment.)

Or what about Handel's beloved "Hallelujah Chorus"? "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever!!"

These images aren't quiet, meek and mild. These images are earth-shattering. They completely destroy the current power structure; setting into motion events that change the destiny of the world and all its inhabitants.

All this makes me ask, "Has the Church missed it?" Do we get hung up on how we're greeted at Wal-Mart rather than freeing captives and setting prisoners free? Seems to me if we were giving sight to the blind and delivering good news to the poor, we wouldn't worry about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. There'd be an army of formerly oppressed, now freed people to tell the story of the Christ of Christmas.

Maybe if the sweet, syrupy image is all I have, my picture of Christmas is incomplete. I need a radical, sledghammer, TNT Christmas that destroys the powers of a broken world and establishes peace on earth, good will to men, women, and children. THAT'S the type of Christmas our world needs. THAT'S the type of Christmas worthy of your life.

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