December 11, 2004
Simultaneous intensity of joy and sorrow – that is a big part of the story of Christmas. The star, angels, magi, and a baby called “God With Us” began a sequence that took Jesus fairly quickly through contempt and conspiracy to be humiliated, tortured and murdered. The events of those years had him in tears at times, both for the nation’s loss – which he felt profoundly – and for his own. While the old seers in the temple in Jesus’ infancy found deep joy in his appearance, the word simultaneously came to Mary, “a sword will pierce your own heart also.”
No wonder Jesus was not exactly a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. But he did love those people, and he did do parties. Nor was he a wet blanket on such occasions; his presence was welcomed and appreciated. And there were other times for him of extraordinary joy and pleasure. But this, we have to remember, was in a world of oppressions, cruelties, exploitations, and brutal incompetencies of great extent. It seems likely to me that he was much more intensely, painfully aware of those evils than were any of his contemporaries – or any of us today for that matter.
He knew he had come to meet all those things head on. Some of our Christmas songs remind us of this. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” for example. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given”; “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
It is precious to me, and very important, that the Gospel I believe in is so bluntly realistic about human experience and human moral reality. This is not a happy go lucky, cutesy, cheerily indifferent, grinning, self-righteous stupidity. Nor is it a triumphalist, bullying arrogance. Where it finds or creates joy, there is really JOY. And where it finds sorrow, it faces it, drinks it up, survives it, and transforms it. It’s the real thing, the strongest thing. It always amazes me.
And it is an honor to share in those sufferings, and those joys, as they continue even today, in my life and our world-life. He does not ask me to rule the world, or even to understand it, but he does ask me to believe in and serve his intelligence and his moral power to bring all things, even contemporary things, into his greater and more real victory. Martin King said, “The arc of the universe bends slowly, but it bends toward justice.” Christian theology holds that our human “universe” does so – “bends toward justice” – because of the immense power of the sufferings and victories of this one Man, and of those who genuinely honor his values and his agenda.
Does Jesus care about our arrogant brutality in Iraq, and about those Iraqis and Americans (mostly Iraqis) who are suffering it right now? Does Jesus care about American corporations running sweatshops and slave labor in other countries? Does Jesus care about abuse of our troops, veterans, and their families? Does Jesus care about school kids enduring crowded classrooms without textbooks? Does Jesus care about the greed of the wealthy that despises “the common people” who “heard Him gladly”? Does Jesus care about irresponsible damage to the economy that injures millions of us and will injure many more for many years to come? He does and always has. Concerns like that took him to the place of execution.
Gandhi and the “satyagraha” (soul force, or truth force) of millions of nonviolent Indians freed India from a British regime that was not much nicer than the Romans’. Surely there is as great a force available to Americans through the Christian Gospel. That’s not all Christmas means to me, but it is a big part of it. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee.” We need to find, live personally, and publically leverage the powerful realism and the great moral subversive power that the Christmas story brings.