Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Message 2011

This is not a column about Christopher Hitchens, although his death (or rather, his life) and the losses and doings of Steve Jobs, Kim Jong Il, and whomever it is you wish were here today are why I’m writing. But not really: I am writing to try to explain the Christian message to those the Church has confused, or wounded, and maybe even for satisfied Christians who’ve missed the point, as we all do from time to time.

Within minutes of the announcement of Hitchens’s death, I received multiple inquiries: is he in heaven now? How to respond? “I hope so,” or “I guess he knows now God really is great”? His book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, bugged me. Religion really has poisoned lots of things – but not everything. We poison things quite well on our own without religion, and we’re the ones who poisoned religion – including Christmas. Jesus in heaven must look down and shake his head over all the froth, the frenzy of self-indulgence. Sure, we remember to toss in a little spasm of charity, a toy for some child we’ll never meet – and then we paste a “Jesus is the reason for the season” sticker on it all so we whose true religion is consumerism feel semi-righteous?

What is Christianity? It is not that God is great. Rather, God is small. What we believe is that God’s greatness is that God became small to win our hearts. Absolute power, the kind Kim Jong Il wielded, intimidates; God wants to be as unscary as possible. Who’s scared of a child? And who can’t identify with God’s self-revelation as an infant? If God became tall, witty, muscular, or rich (or even a mother or father), many of us couldn’t connect. You once were small, vulnerable, dependent, needing lots of love, like Jesus.

And you will be vulnerable and needing the love again one day. We are mortal; our truest carol phrase is “Lo, the days are hastening on.” One day you won’t be here to do Christmas any longer – and you know this, because there is somebody you couldn’t imagine living without who won’t be there Christmas morning, or ever again. I mention this, not to frighten or manipulate. Rather, it’s just reality that we are transient beings, not here for so long – but we never feel comfortable about that. We want more, we yearn for a future, for deeper meaning.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs, and his awful gadgets that require us to be somewhere we aren’t. I fume when I’m with somebody who isn’t there; he’s pecking at a screen, he’s someplace else, but not there either. And yet, this impulse to find meaning somewhere else, this urge to reach for a linkage beyond the room where I am is absolutely on target. This world isn’t enough; we are hardwired to reach beyond. Children know this: they daydream, their world is enchanted, they can believe in the unseen. The story of Christmas is that God is – and God is, even if we are tone deaf to God, even if we are mean to God like Christopher Hitchens or mean to other people like Kim Jong Il.

I suspect this is why God thought the best way to reach us was by way of a child. Big people can make you fight, defend, grab. But a child evokes tenderness. How could a child be the solution to our really large problems, like economic and political turmoil or even violence? If we could remember the little children (as Jesus said once he got bigger) we really would get our priorities straight and stop shooting, grabbing greedily, and bickering. Think Jerry Sandusky. Every one of us is mortified: no one should stand by and let a child be hurt! So God showed us God in the shape of a child, inviting us to rise up and refuse to settle for injustice; children elicit goodness in us.

Notice there is no judgmental attitude in this message. To consider the idea that God entered our world as a child isn’t harsh judgment on anybody. Jesus didn’t sit up in the manger and denounce others, or deliver a lecture entitled “We are right, everybody else is wrong!” Jesus is the affirmation of all people, including you and me. Jesus isn’t my trump card defeating you. The idea of God-down-here is something special we treasure, and it causes us to treasure you, or we’ve missed the point. Jesus is the truth that we are all indelibly noble, worth loving and protecting, and that we can’t help but love other people, and not merely with a toy in December but with food and shelter (which Jesus’ parents had a hard time finding!) all year round.

And so, let’s contemplate the wisdom and hope in God being not great but small, and discover that God really does want to get close, the child being the only hope for such wonderful things as goodness, hope and love.