by guest writer Gavril Andreicut, Ph.D.
Origins are important in life because they are its most important reference. For the Christian, the birth of Jesus is arguably the most remarkable event of history, the moment when God’s Son enters history in a human form, and it marks the beginning of His earthly mission of salvation, which culminated with His suffering, death, and resurrection. The point of this short article is that the main features of Jesus’s birth story are simplicity and its stark contrast with the status quo of historical and contemporary Christianity.
For a while and for the sake of people, Jesus renounced to Himself to became what He was not, God’s Grace in a human form, a human being, and a servant. Paul uses the expression, Jesus “emptied Himself,” (Phil 2:7) basically meaning humbling Himself to the limitations of the human nature, with His divinity being shadowed by the frailty of human nature. To say more about it would not be just unbiblical but also misleading and deceptive. However, the point here is that Christmas means grace and renunciation – since Jesus became a man for our sake, it also means that we should humble ourselves and be a grace—or give ourselves—to others, for the sake of people.
Historical Christianity does not allow us to affirm that renunciation/humility has been a quality of Christians.
Indeed, except for the different forms of ascetic lives, it seems that it was the opposite. The ideal form of renunciation and humility should take place in community—as Basil of Caesarea stated when asceticism was still in its formative period—where our faith is constantly tested. However, it cannot be said to have been a firm characteristic of Christianity. Peter Brown, writing about the fourth century Christianity, refers to the church “rising above the Roman world like ‘a moon waxing in its brightness.’ It was a confident, international body, established in the respect of Christian Emperors, sought out by noblemen and intellectuals … a church set, no longer to defy society, but to master it.”
This reality continued in the Middle Ages when Christianity was aligned to the rigid social structures of society. Consequently, grace and humility were imposed by the social structures of society, not by the Bible, which was interpreted in light of the social life. The Reformation, which claimed to go back to the basic truths of the Bible, failed miserably regarding grace and humility. Like in the Middle Ages, it was the social life that which had dictated the religious life – the Reformers aligned to the social structures of society, which supported them. Graced and humility worked well only within the walls of each Christian movement and depending on their theological particularities, the others were treated with indignation. Although claiming that Scripture is clear, the sole source of infallible authority, and sufficient, the Reformers fought for the right teaching, resulting in three main divisions within Protestantism, all of them during Luther’s lifetime. While they did not manage to get along together, they all persecuted the Left Wing of the Reformation. While their theological disputes did not solve anything—they continue to divide Christians—they failed to practice humility and renunciation. As to contemporary Christianity, I would say that individualism, which is characteristic of both Christianity and the social life in America, is the most obvious evidence that humility is an irrelevant quality.
Related to simplicity is Jesus’s humble birth. The fact that He was born in a manger is not what should surprise us, considering the social conditions of that time. What is striking is the fact that God’s Son had chosen to be born in a manger, and for this reason, the manger in the story has an important meaning. Indeed, the manger is the sign by which Jesus was supposed to be identified by the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) But the simplicity of Jesus’s birth continues. The angel who brings “Good news of great joy for all the people”— “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”—reveals it to a few shepherds, people with no credibility and of a low social condition. (Luke 2:10-11)
Why the simplicity of Jesus’s birth? The answer is simple: He appeared to humble people, to shepherds who were most likely prepared to accept Jesus. It tells us that while some people are most likely to accept Jesus, there are others to whom Jesus does not have much appeal. And those who are most likely to reject Jesus are those who are self-sufficient, those who can use their wealth to help themselves. A good example as to the heart of the wealthy is the parable of the Rich Young Man in Matthew 19:16-24. The young man, who seems to have lived an impeccable life, failed to obtain eternal life, not because of his wealth, but because he relied to much on it, because he was not ready to give it up. While it does not mean that the wealthy will not be saved, it does mean that they are most likely to fail to practice renunciation, simplicity, and to be grateful.
Historically, although most intellectuals have seen money as a source of evil, people’s position usually depend on their position is society. For example, while Seneca and Lactantius saw money as the society’s greatest source of affliction, Clement of Alexandria saw it positively. Having money is not something intrinsically evil. What matters is how people manage money. Thus, people must get rid of “the infirmities and passions of the soul,” not of money. And Clement is right, but Matthew 19:16-24 is the most important reference on this topic – People are avidly hoarding money without renouncing the passions or the soul. When most wealth of the world is in the hands of a small percent of the population, and when people are dying of hunger, it is clear that people do not manage their wealth by considering the needs of their brothers in Christ. What seems to me quite evident is the fact that too much stuff, things that are appealing to our mind and senses, has a great ability to distract our attention from Jesus, not just at Christmas, but daily.
Regarding Jesus and political power, there is no compatibility between them. Since there is no compatibility between powers with different values, there is no compatibility between Jesus and powers that claim supreme authority for themselves. After Jesus was born, King Herod was disturbed by the news of the birth of Jesus, a potential rival to him, and tried to kill Him. Therefore, his parents took him to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. In addition, Jesus was killed by the religious and political leader of society, by those who did not accept the possibility of being challenged by someone.
And this trend continued up to the present. After three centuries of challenges and sporadic persecutions, a compromise was achieved under Constantine, who legalize Christianity. From that time on, Christianity had to accept the involvement of the state in its affairs. Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a constant fight between church and state, and although the church had great successes, the political power gradually imposed its authority more often than the church. During the Reformation, the main Reformers forged an alliance with the state, and this is how the Reformation was established in Europe. Those Christians who had refused to collaborate with the state were persecuted not just by the state but also by other Christians. While the Enlightenment thinkers criticized the violence of Christians against other Christians, the French Revolution tried to eliminate Christianity – Christianity’s inability to change society prompted the radical groups of the revolution to eliminate Christianity and to establish a more efficient and just society. Of course, it failed to create a better society, but the seed planted by the French Revolution has continued to grow. Currently, American Christianity is basically divided according to the two political parties, which means two Christianities with two Jesuses, one who supports the Democrats, and one who supports the Republicans.
This last election I was surprised by the Christians’ blind support of the candidates. Most people elected for the sake of their preferred party, and there was no place for Jesus. Although there were some references to Him—they were meaningless: people and political leaders make decisions without referring to Jesus or Scripture—it seemed to me that what separated them was their concern for the social and political system of the country. While some are afraid of Communism, others look for a more inclusive social life. In my opinion, those who are afraid of Communism fail (probably intentionally) to understand the meaning of both Christianity and Communism, whereas those who emphasize a more inclusive social life and love fail to see that human beings are essentially corrupt and in need of God. According to Reinhold Niebuhr, those Christians who emphasize love but do not adequately recognize the problem of sin are modern heretics. Since no political party rules with reference to Jesus and Scripture, those who support a political party without criticizing it enough are making of if an idol.
Christmas also is about joy because renewal, the good news of salvation, always brings joy. It is a joy in simplicity, because anything which is not simple may distract our attention from Jesus. Joy, in its practical form, essentially means that we give ourselves to others, that we are there for others practically, and that we are a grace to others. Although Matthew 28:19-20 tells us to go to spread the good news, which we should, being a grace to others is the most practical and efficient way of celebrating Christmas and of telling others about it.
Gavril Andreicut, Ph.D.
14 December 2020, Chicago, IL
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_scene.jpg