The Joy -- and Ambiguity -- of Christmas

Christmas is a time of great joy.  But in the lectionary readings, the joy of Christmas is ambiguous and short-lived.  As pastors spiritually prepare for Christmas Eve -- often the highpoint of the Christian year in which families gather for worship and visitors come with the expectation of carols and reliving childhood memories -- there is the expectation on the pastor to be upbeat and celebrative.  The congregants want -- but perhaps more importantly -- need to hear "good tidings of great joy."  As a popular Christmas song of an earlier era pleads, "we need a little Christmas right this very moment."  Both personally and homiletically, the preacher needs to makes a choice: to focus on joy or ambiguity during the Christmas season.  The angels sing out God's glory, yet we live -- like Jesus' family -- in a world of violence and death.  Can the preacher affirm a joyful realism during the Christmas season?

The mood of Christmas this year parallels the proclamation of Jesus' birth in Luke's gospel, the lectionary reading for Christmas Eve (Lk. 2:1-20).  We are looking for joy in a time of personal, national, and global uncertainty.  The government's attempts to jump-start the economy have not been successful.  People are out of work in our congregations and some wonder if the jobs they counted on to carry them into retirement are ever coming back.  Others have tightened their belts, including their pledges to the church, or are pondering one last Christmas splurge before being downsized or having to close their businesses.  Still, for others it will be a "blue Christmas" as a result of personal loss -- separation, divorce, estrangement, or the death of a loved one.

As the carol proclaims, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight."  The Christmas readings mirror this ambiguity.  Mary and Joseph are citizens of an occupied territory.  The Roman occupying force is brutal; taxes are levied to support the imperial government.   Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem to pay tribute to a foreign government and, to add insult to injury, the only shelter they can find for the birth of their child is a stable.

The angelic messengers deliver the good news, first, to shepherds "living in the fields," enduring the elements without a roof over their heads.  There is nothing romantic about this theophany; the life of the shepherd is lonely, harsh, and unappreciated.  Their job is necessary for society, but they have the social status of those who pick up our trash.  In the most unlikely place, the angelic voices ring out.  There is a democracy of revelation, described in Luke, in which God gives glad tidings in the least expected places -- to sanitation workers hauling trash before sunrise, to first responders on the beat on a bitter cold day, to single parents working menial jobs just trying to make-do, to immigrants crossing the border by night.

There is no complacency in Luke's proclamation of Jesus' birth. But, perhaps, that is good news. For eventually, most of us will find ourselves on the receiving end of this good news, of God with us, in the most unlikely and often painful places. Three years ago, I spent Christmas Day in Georgetown University Hospital's chemotherapy ward.  My only child was being treated for a rare form of cancer.  On Christmas morning, we walked, father and son, the four blocks from his home to the hospital, carrying a fruit and pastry basket for the nurses who chose to work on Christmas Day.  For six hours we sat together in the chemo ward, hoping for good news through modern chemistry, while my wife, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law prepared a meal that my son could digest.  There was celebration that Christmas in 2008, but it was tinged with anxiety and fear, and the realism that life can be difficult.  But, make no mistake, this is the world in which the Christ-child comes -- the world of grieving spouses, homeless families, frightened immigrants; a world of care and uncertainty.  This is precisely where "we need a little Christmas" -- not false hope or a good-time God, but an all-season spirituality, grounded in a love that embraces the dark night and the joyful dawn.

On the first Sunday of Christmas, December 26, the mood quickly shifts.  The preacher is given three alternatives: the lectionary reading (focusing on Matthew 2:13-23, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, their return home after years in exile, and the massacre of infants); the Epiphany Sunday reading (Matthew 2:1-12, the visit of the Magi); or a hybrid in the spirit of Palm/Passion Sunday (reading Matthew 2:1-12 at the beginning, followed by Christmas carols and then abruptly turning mid-service to the more violent Matthew 2:13-23 reading).  In any case, the celebration is brief.  Even the visit of the Magi foreshadows a threat to Jesus and his parents.  The Magi are warned in a dream to go home by "another road."  The preacher can focus on a variety of theologically transformative topics on this Sunday:

  1. the global nature of revelation that reaches beyond our faith tradition to embrace the whole earth -- the Magi were most likely followers of Zoroaster, the prophet of light and darkness; today, their children would most likely be followers of Islam or Zoroastrianism. 
  2. the theme of going home by another road, lifting up the reality that God inspires us in dreams and encounters to take a different path in life than we expected, and that God is present in the paths that we have not chosen -- grief, loss, unemployment, serious illness -- providing guidance and care.
  3. the reality of suffering and oppression then and now and the question: "how do we celebrate the birth of Christ in a world characterized by oppression and violence?"
  4. the presence of God in the lives of strangers and immigrants, like the Holy Family.  Jesus and his parents became "guests" in a strange land, relying on the compassion of others.  This passage cries out for a response to our own nation's immigrants and undocumented workers.  Does the Christmas story embrace them today?  Are today's immigrants holy families, deserving our hospitality?
more at patheos