The Double Message of Christmas
I’ve never been happy with some of my activist friends who send out Christmas cards with messages like: May the Peace of Christ Disturb You!Can’t we have one day a year to be happy and celebrate without having our already unhappy selves shaken with more guilt? Isn’t Christmas a time when we can enjoy being children again? Moreover, as Karl Rahner once said, isn’t Christmas a time when God gives us permission to be a happy? So why not?
Well, it’s complex. Christmas is a time when God gives us permission to be happy, when the message from God speaks through the voice of Isaiah and says: “Comfort my people. Speak words of comfort!” But Christmas is also a time that points out that when God was born two thousand years ago there wasn’t any room for him to be born in all the normal homes and places of the day. There was no room for him at the inn. Peoples’ busy lives and expectations kept them from offering him a place to be born. That hasn’t changed.
But first, the comfort of his birth: A number of years ago, I participated in a large diocesan synod. At one point the animator in charge had us divide into small groups and each group was asked to answer the question: What’s the single most-important thing that the church should challenge the world with right now?
The groups reported back and each group named some important spiritual or moral challenge: “We need to challenge our society towards more justice!” “We need to challenge the world to have real faith and not confuse God’s word with its own wishes.” “We need to challenge our world towards a more responsible sexual ethos. We’ve lost our way!” Wonderful, needed challenges, all of them. But no group came back and said: “We need to challenge the world to receive God’s consolation!” Granted, there’s a lot of injustice, violence, racism, sexism, greed, selfishness, sexual irresponsibility, and self-serving faith around; but most of the adults in our world are also living in a lot pain, anxiety, disappointment, loss, depression, and unresolved guilt. Everywhere you look, you see heavy hearts. Moreover, so many people living with hurt and disappointment do not see God and the church as an answer to their pain but rather as somehow part of its cause.
So our churches, in preaching God’s word, need first of all to assure the world of God’s love, God’s concern, and God’s forgiveness. Before doing anything else, God’s word is meant to comfort us; indeed, to be the ultimate source of all comfort. Only when the world knows God’s consolation will it accept the concomitant challenge.
And that challenge, among others, is to then make room for Christ at the inn, that is, to open our hearts, our homes, and our world as places were Christ can come and live. From the safe distance of two thousand years we too easily make a scathing judgment on the people at the time of Jesus’ birth for not knowing what Mary and Joseph were carrying, for not making a proper place for Jesus to be born, and for not recognizing him as Messiah afterwards. How could they be so blind? But that same judgment is still being made of us. We aren’t exactly making room in our own inns.
When a new person is born into this world, he or she takes a space where before there was no one. Sometimes that new person is warmly welcomed and a cozy, loving space is instantly created and everyone around is happy for this new invasion. But that isn’t always the case; sometimes, as was the case with Jesus, there is no space created for the new person to enter the world and his or her presence is unwelcome.
We see this today (and this will constitute a judgment on our generation) in the reluctance, almost all over the world, to welcome new immigrants, to make room for them at the inn. The United Nations estimates that there are 19.5 million refugees in the world today, persons whom no one will welcome. Why not? We are not bad people and we are capable most times of being wonderfully generous. But letting this flood of immigrants enter our lives would disturb us. Our lives would have to change. We would lose some of our present comforts, many of our old familiarities, and some of our securities.
We are not bad people, neither were those innkeepers two thousand years ago who, not knowing what was unfolding, in inculpable ignorance, turned Mary and Joseph away. I’ve always nursed a secret sympathy for them. Maybe because I am still, unknowingly, doing exactly what they did. A friend of mine is fond of saying: “I’m against more immigrants being allowed in … now that we’re in!”
The peace of Christ, the message inside of Christ’s birth, and the skewed circumstances of his birth, if understood, cannot but disturb. May they also bring deep consolation.