This was my column in Sunday’s Greenville News.
Christmas appears, if we believe the marketing, to be a season for the rich, happy, safe and whole. The time when vast, intact families of beautiful, healthy people gather around lavish feasts and exchange mountains of gifts, all while understanding ‘the real meaning of Christmas.’ Children come home from college, husbands and wives embrace, grandparents sit quietly around the fire attended by grandchildren and even the dogs have shiny coats, pawing open their toys from palatial pet stores. Outside the window snow falls and Santa slips away with a smile. I love it! Except, it isn’t always that way. In fact, it isn’t mostly that way.
Maybe that’s why it started the way it did. Humble and dusty, in a shed for animals, with poor parents, traveling far from home and having a baby whose identity and destiny were, at the least, overwhelming. Christmas started in a place where poverty was not merely widespread but baseline. Riches, means, these were the outliers. When Christmas is temporally perfect, that’s grand. But Christmas is for those struggling. At Christmas, Jesus is born into the midst of difficulty and brokenness, not into a palace.
Furthermore, the Christ child came to a people with a clear cultural memory of slavery, in a time when they were subject to the vast power of almighty Rome. He came in a time when being forced into slavery, because of debt, crime or conquest, was simply a fact of all too many lives. It is comical that those who object to Christianity use the term ‘slave religion.’ Of course it is. It was and is a slave religion because it cared for the slaves (and others nobody wanted), embraced them, and because Jesus himself said came, among other missions, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives.’
And of course, we are slaves and captives still. Slaves to the illusion that politics (or worse, politicians) will redeem the world. Slaves to possessions. Captive to the idea that only money matters, and that with enough money every person will be good, healthy, kind and just if only we can shuffle it around adequately. Slaves to the beliefs that we can control everything, that success is all and that education and intelligence somehow excuse us from trouble. Captives all around, though the shackles are prettier than the heavy iron of old days. But they hold us still.
Jesus was not born so that we could have a nice holiday, although I love Christmas as many of us do. He was born, launched into this world, a teacher, healer, deliverer, redeemer. And this is very important for all of those whose lives are broken at Christmas. I’ve seen them over and over. Christmas can be a time of grieving, worry, fear, sickness, loss, mourning and loneliness as surely as it’s a time of beauty and wonder. And why not? It fits the story. Angels and heavenly songs attend the infant King, born into a place of trouble and suffering, point-counterpoint.
So then, move past the limited accounts we have of that first Christmas. Watch the Gospels after Christmas and see the child become a man. He healed the possessed, the blind and lame. He taught mercy and turned human judgment upside down time after time. He raised the dead. And he forgave sins, which is maybe the one thing we find the most objectionable of all (because it would mean we have to believe in sin and our own guilt).
Trouble at Christmas is especially hurtful, simply because we want everything to be just right. But we must not be ‘troubled at the trouble.’ Christmas happened, and happens, exactly because of trouble. The world needed more than kind words and beautiful ideas. It needed a deliverer, who would plop right down in the midst of every dark thing that binds and wounds us.
I hope that everyone has the perfect Christmas, with loved ones and prosperity all around. But most of the world won’t. Which is, beautifully and ironically, exactly why Christmas happened. And why the man Jesus, years later, said in John 16:33, ‘I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’
If that’s not a Christmas greeting for everyone, nothing ever was.