I really do not know what to make of Christmas this year.
Christmas comes with the promise that hope is fulfilled. During Advent, we are charged to wait in that hope, to be excited by that hope and to look forward to that hope being made manifest in our midst on December 25th, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. I have always believed that Advent is best understood as a month-long exercise in hoping for something better and for something more than what surrounds us. Christmas is the reward and culmination of it all.
Some years, the exercise of Advent is easier than others. This year it has been difficult, to say the least.
Christmas comes in adversarial times; and by adversarial, I very much mean to suggest that these times are marked by the work of the Adversary in our midst – the spirit of what John’s followers called “the antiChrist” that is “already present in this world.” In the United States, our celebration of Jesus’ birth comes in times of presidential impeachment, immeasurable levels of corruption in our government and seemingly intractable division.
“Perhaps we ought to reach back … to the faith of a colonized people who were living in occupied territory.”
The Republican-led Senate will return from the Christmas break to conduct a trial that will likely be absent any measure of integrity while full of anti-anti-Trump vitriol. The intent of the Republican majority will be to vindicate the 45th president in response to a House Judiciary Committee process that they view as a sham, even while Trump persists in daily demonstrations of his profound ignorance, impulsivity, disregard for democratic norms and willingness to bully anyone – even teenagers and grieving widows! – without apology.
Michael Harriot recently called Pete Buttigieg a lying you-know-what for far less than this; and yet, we are guaranteed to be subjected to at least one more year of Trumpism on the other side of commemorating Jesus’ birth. All of this is not to mention the division around the world that mimics what is happening here, from the increasingly dis-United Kingdom, to India (where Muslims are being targeted for marginalization and deportation), Hong Kong (which is still reeling from pro-democracy unrest) and many spots elsewhere around the globe. Hence, the particular difficulty this year in hoping for something better than what surrounds us.
Only one thing makes Christmas powerful as it should be in 2019: the knowledge that conditions were not much better two millennia ago. The biblical record reflects that Jesus was born in times of colonial occupation, as well as political and religious repression. Palestinian people’s lives were subject to the whims of the Roman emperor and the government stooges appointed as his delegates around the empire.
The only reason Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem rather than at home in Nazareth was because his parents had been ordered by the Roman government to show up and be counted for a census in their hometown. To be counted for a census in those days meant that it was quite likely the emperor was preparing to tax the poor and take what little they had and/or send those impoverished men off to fight in an imperial war. So Joseph and his very pregnant wife were obliged to travel 90 miles in a time long before planes, trains and automobiles were available to assist with the journey.
Hope during the first Christmas season was based on a promise made by a prophet named Isaiah who had declared hundreds of years earlier that a child would be born and that the government would rest upon his shoulders and that he would be called “Prince of Peace.” It was said that this government and its peace would never end, and that all of this would happen because of the “passionate commitment” of the “Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
Such a promise no doubt seemed like a fantastic tale to some, but it was, in fact, a prophecy that spoke directly to the political situation in Israel. It was the expressed hope for a day when the authority and prosperity that had marked King David’s rule would be restored. It was not fantastic at all; it was tangible, and it was real.
“Conditions were not much better two millennia ago.”
It may be that the only way to really experience Christmas as it was intended is to renew the faith of a pre-Christmas people who did not yet know the Savior whose justice and righteousness we seem to stubbornly resist at every turn. It may be that if the faith of the past 2,000 years has been so weak and unsophisticated so as to lead us to the current conditions that we face, then perhaps we ought to reach back a little farther to the faith of a colonized people who were living in occupied territory — a community who knew clearly that nothing about their daily existence was guaranteed.
Perhaps we need the faith that comes with the humility of recent exile. The Israelite people of first century Palestine were a people who were eager to believe that the prophecies of the past would come to pass. Jesus was not the first messianic figure to emerge from their midst because these were a people driven by a messianic hope. This was a hope they were willing to pray for, fight for and die for. It was a desperate but also determined hope for something Godly in a world that was anything but divine.
That’s the kind of hope that is worth exercising as a form of resistance to the current conditions in which we live. It’s an exercise that is worth mustering strength for. It’s an exercise that may be the only appropriate one for celebrating Christmas in times like these.