“Christmas — who cares?”
“It’s for the kids; I’m too old for that nonsense.”
“Christians are all hypocrites anyway.”
“I used to be a Catholic; then I grew up.”
“It’s all about the money: the malls, the churches: all the same.”
“I just get so depressed at Christmas. I’ve lost the innocence of youth and there’s no connection to family any more — and this just makes it all worse.”
“With all of the violence and craziness in the world, why the hell should I get involved with all this make-believe?
As we enter another Christmas Season (and remember that for Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of a whole season of “Christmas”!), perhaps we should reflect a bit on why we even care about it. “Christmas” as an event has just become, for so many people, a civic holiday, a commercial opportunity, and mere Seinfeldian “festivus”. Let’s face it: for many people, “Christmas” is simply something to be endured and survived.
Why do Christians care about Christmas? What does it — what should it — mean? Are Christians who celebrate Christmas simply naive children who won’t grow up?
In my Advent reflection yesterday on the Hebrew expression “Emmanuel” (God-with-us) I stressed the intimacy of this relationship with God. No matter how we may feel at any given moment, the God we have given our hearts to (which is actually the root meaning of “I believe”) is with us through it all — even when we can’t or don’t recognize it. Think of a child in her room playing. Does she realize that her father out in the kitchen is thinking about her, listening for sounds that may mean that she needs his help, pondering her future? Does she realize that her mother at work in her office is also thinking about her, loving her, and making plans for her future? The love of parents for children is constant and goes beyond simply those times when they are physically present to each other.
God is like that, too. Sometimes we feel God’s presence around us, sometimes we don’t. From our perspective it might seem like God has left us — but God hasn’t. That’s the beauty of “Emmanuel” and the great insight of the Jewish people which we Christians have inherited: regardless of what I may think or feel at any given moment, “God is with us.”
Christmas celebrates that reality. But there’s more to it than that. God isn’t with us as some kind of superhero god with a deep voice and stirring sound track like a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic. God “thinks big and acts small” and comes to the world as a weak and helpless baby. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God is in the manger.” We’ll have more to say about that in a moment. But for now, consider the mistake that many people make. As we get older and set aside childish ways, some people assume that since God is in the manger as a baby, that this makes Christmas simply something for children. How wrong they are! The great scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, emphasized this point in his landmark study, “An Adult Christ at Christmas.” If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you do so: consider it a belated Christmas gift to yourself!
The world into which Jesus was born was every bit as violent, abusive, and full of destructive intent as our own. And yet, consider what Christians have maintained from the beginning. God’s saving plan was not brought about through noble families, through the Jewish high priestly caste, or through the structures of the Roman empire. It wasn’t engaged in Greek or Roman philosophies or religions. Instead we find a young Jewish girl from an ordinary family, her slightly older betrothed (there is nothing in scripture that suggests that Joseph was an older man, so we might assume that he was in his late teens, not that much older than Mary), shepherds (who were largely considered outcasts in Jewish society), foreign astrologers avoiding the puppet Jewish king, and on and on. What’s more, the savior of the world sent by God doesn’t show up on a white charger at the head of mighty army, but as a baby.
God enters the scene in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. How will this “save” anyone?
God saves by so uniting himself with us (Emmanuel) that he takes on all of our struggles, joys, pains, and hopes. The ancient hymn, quoted by that former and infamous persecutor of Christians, Saul-who-became-Paul, captures it well (Philippians 2: 5-11):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
What should all of this nice poetry mean to us? Paul is explicit. Writing from prison himself, he tells the Philippians: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and the path of the Christian, following Christ, is first to empty ourselves if we hope later to rise with him.
THIS IS THE VERY HEART OF CHRISTIANITY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO CALL OURSELVES DISCIPLES OF JESUS THE CHRIST: TO EMPTY OURSELVES IN IMITATION OF CHRIST. IF WE’RE NOT DOING THAT WE DARE NOT CALL OURSELVES “CHRISTIANS”!
Many people have written about this in a variety of contexts. Here are just a few random examples.
Empty yourself: “Suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.” John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #93.
Empty yourself: “The gift to us of God’s ever faithful love must be answered by an authentic life of charity which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts. We too must give our gift fully; that is, we must divest ourselves of ourselves in that same kenosis of love.” Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 107.
Empty yourself: “Kenosis moves beyond simply giving up power. It is an active emptying, not simply the acceptance of powerlessness.” William Ditewig, The Exercise of Governance by Deacons: A Theological and Canonical Study.
Empty yourself: “It is precisely in the kenosis of Christ (and nowhere else) that the inner majesty of God’s love appears, of God who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8) and a ‘trinity.’ Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone.
Empty yourself: “Satan fears the Trojan horse of an open human heart.” Johann Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit.
And so we return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This well-known German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and concentration camp martyr embodies the wedding of of the meaning of Christmas with the real world in which we live. He devoted his life to study, to writing, to opposing injustice — especially the Nazi regime in Germany, ultimately giving the ultimate witness to Christ. Christians like Bonhoeffer, whose best-known work is called The Cost of Discipleship, are not dreamy, wide-eyed innocents who do not connect with the world. In fact, their witness shows us just the opposite. The true Christian is one who — following Christ — engages the world in all of its joys, hopes, pains and suffering. It is with Bonhoeffer, then, that we enter into Christmas 2015, with his wonderful reflection:
Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.
MAY WE ALL “GET” CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR! HOW WILL WE EMPTY OURSELVES FOR OTHERS?