I am tired of the annual Christmas outrage to celebrate the Prince of Peace. There are so many Christians in the West that it sometimes makes it hard for us to realize the implications of Christmas and why it was/is/and always will be Good News.
If we don’t realize that the very first Christmas was scandalous in its radical inclusion of outsiders and people on the margins, we may find ourselves insisting on making Christmas a celebration that becomes known for its exclusion.
We have a sanitized version of the Christmas story that involves a Jesus who is born with swaddling blankets and a barn with tame animals who do more worshiping than pooping, but the real Christmas story is incredibly daring, risky and relevant.
For example… When Jesus first arrived, before he was known as anything, he was a refugee. His family was fleeing a violent tyrant named Herod.
The first Silent Night was actually neither calm nor quiet. And if we Christians don’t realize that was actually the world that Christmas happened in, we might find ourselves saying some very fear-based, non-hospitable things about the refugees in our world. We might find ourselves being the ones who have no room in the inn.
But this isn’t a blog about the refugee crisis, it is a blog about Christmas.
Magicians Find the Messiah
When the original Christmas story happened, magi, or magicians came to help tell the story, which is interesting, because the Israelites disdained magicians.
Now today ”Magi” sounds like a very Christmas-y word, but in the day that Christmas actually happened everyone knew that they were the outsiders. It was a word that originally meant either a Median or Zoroastrian priest. By the time the New Testament was written it could mean someone who was trained in the dark arts, things like interpreting dreams, astrology, talking to the dead. You know, just like the Wise Men in the Christmas story that you grew up hearing about.
Today, the church that stands over the Cave where Jesus was born is called the
Church of the Holy Nativity, it’s was built in 326 A.D. and on the Church there is a mosaic of these Magi. In 614 A.D. when the Persians invaded Jerusalem, they burned all the churches to the ground. But not this one. When they saw the Magi dressed in traditional clothes of the Persians they said here is a church that respects our traditions, and they decided not to destroy it. This little detail may sound trivial to you, but I think that it is incredibly inspiring.
The Christmas story from the very beginning calls into question all the ways we categorize the people of the world into good and bad. After all, it was no less than the King of Israel who was the terrorist in this story, and it was the supposed terrorist/devil worshipers who were the good guys.
The Gospel is very clear in this regard, Jesus is the true King of the Jews, but His rule isn’t limited to Jewish people. And since the chances are you are not a Jew, that is good news for you.
A few verses earlier, Matthew has written a scandalous genealogy for this King that goes out of its way to include all the wrong people: Women who were prostitutes; one woman was a Gentile (in the genealogy of the King of the Jews!) Matthew even mentions the king who had an affair and committed murder!Compare Matthew’s introduction of Jesus to King Herod. Herod had his genealogies destroyed because he didn’t want to be judged on the basis of his ancestors. But Matthew wants you to know from the beginning, that while Jesus may be like a king, kings are not like Him. Jesus is not for all the right people who are of the right lineage or have their junk in order. Jesus is for all the people who are looking for Him. And so the Magi become the first visitors to this baby who will change the world. They came because they were thirsty for truth, and they came to learn that they were really thirsty for God.
The Original Seekers
One of the reasons I have problems with using Christmas for a culture war, is because we become off-putting to the very people who may be looking for God. Think about what had to change for these Magi; think about how much of their theology and way of life had to change. They are the first Christian converts, all because the Christian story is open and welcoming to them.
I love the way that G.K. Chesterton talks about this:
Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the
family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.
Think about what Chesterton is saying. The Magi come to Bethlehem because of a star, which means God started where they were and took them to where they never would have expected. Christmas invites all people everywhere who are searching for God, because Christmas is God searching for them.
Every year the 24-hour news cycle runs some story about how some retailer has decided to use the term “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and how some people are upset because we want to do our Black Friday shopping/greed-bonanza to some Christmas carols, the way that the early church would have wanted. Now we Christians will always say things like “Merry Christmas” but my question is when did we decide that this was a policy that we needed to outsource to retail stores?
I think it is important to realize that we live in a pluralistic society, where lots of people don’t believe in Christmas, and this time of year they often feel a bit like outsiders looking in. They know that all the lights and mistletoe aren’t for them. They don’t believe the story, and they don’t know why their radio stations have been taken over by the same dozen songs sung by a thousand different people covering them. They are, in a word, outsiders.
They are the Magi.
And if Christmas becomes a buzzword in some culture war over power, it becomes less and less appealing to them because it looks like it is more against them than it is for them. It becomes something more like the way of Herod, and much less like the way of Christmas.
So in the spirit of Christmas, to everyone who doesn’t believe it, this story really is good news, even for you…especially for you.