Where is the best place to celebrate Christmas? Is it at home with family and friends? Perhaps it is around a Christmas tree singing carols? Even with all the ongoing events and holiday distractions, many think one of the best places to observe Christmas is in church.
For centuries, churches had the monopoly on Christmas. Christmas and the church were synonymous. If the church wasn’t involved, Christmas didn’t happen. The events of Christmas gave birth to Christ which subsequently led to the formation of the church. What better place to celebrate the birth of savior with a staged reproduction of the events surrounding his conception and birth? There’s nothing like a mid-20th-century church decorated to look like our preconceived notions of a 1st-century Palestinian village. Perhaps there’s a different way.
I was wondering if the church is the best place to celebrate or remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We take one of the most sacred events in human history and turn it into a syrupy mish-mash of historical fact, myth, American traditions, and Hallmark cards. In the end, what ends up being told, bears little or no resemblance to the story of Jesus’ birth. We tell a Christmas story where Jesus is simply one character among many. This tale makes us feel good about ourselves and our way of life. The gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth is unsettling to the core. It should move us in ways that challenge our notions of justice, fairness, right, and wrong. Christmas services; the way we do them in most churches today is not about challenge. They are about comfort. In this, we (the church and pastors who lead them) are wrong.
There is little comfort or safety in the story of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born on the streets. His story should be told beyond the comfortable walls of Advent sermons, choral presentations, and candlelit Christmas Eve services. His story is too important to relegate to a once a year extravaganza of color and light. Given the state of the world, our Jesus at Christmas storytelling game is weak. Children and adults in bathrobes aren’t bringing the world peace we’ve hoped for.
The joy of the angels, the joy we sing to the world on Christmas is a subversive message. It is not a joy which proclaims, “We were right, and they were wrong.” It is a joy that justice has come for those who have been locked away in the prisons, starving from hunger, tortured for no reason, and left to die will now know freedom and healing.
This is no self-serving joy. What we tell from the mountains on Christmas Day will get us arrested on Maundy Thursday. The message is the same. Jesus is Lord. The incarnation is a reality. Say that enough, someone will notice. Live that way, the world will become uncomfortable. You might be arrested, marginalized, and attacked. You and Jesus will find each other. I can promise you, wherever you are, it probably won’t be at church. Why? Most of the people I know wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the places Baby Jesus and his Mother will have to go to stay alive. Right after he’s born, he becomes a refugee and has to flee the country. Some good, God-fearing people have real hangups when it comes to looking after refugees.
My prayer for the remainder of Advent: take Christmas to the streets. Release your monopoly on Jesus. Find Christ in the place where he was born.
Richard Lowell Bryant