“So, This is Christmas”
We usher in the New Year today, but on the liturgical calendar it is still Christmastide. What comes to mind when you think of Christmas? Is it carols, presents, and Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas”? If the connections to Christmas music are particularly strong for you, perhaps you immediately caught that my title is a nod to John Lennon. In 1971, Lennon released the song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” as a protest song against the Vietnam War. The song begins with the line, “So this is Christmas/ and what have you done?/ Another year over/ And a new one just begun.” It was a sobering reminder that, though it was Christmas, things were less than ideal.
Sadly, we have a tendency to over-romanticize Christmas. I say that because most of our notions of Christmas are escapist. They are always so warm, pleasant, and joyful. We look to Christmas to escape the difficulties of our lives. Think of Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Unless you’re a kid who gets snow days off from school, most of us don’t normally wish for snow. As adults, we know we’ll still have to drive in it! We’ll still have to shovel it from our sidewalks or driveways. We may still have to make a dangerous drive through it to work. And if you can’t get to work and you’re paid hourly like 59% of the country is, you risk losing pay and not being able to make ends meet. So you put yourself in danger to keep the lights and heat on. But every Christmas, grown folks who almost always complain when they have to drive in and shovel snow suddenly dream of a “white Christmas.”
What we actually dream of is an escapist Christmas. We want Christmas to bring about a different reality. So we romanticize it. Christmas is when we enjoy the shows, parties and presents. It’s when we’re able to forget about how messed up the world can be because “light shines in darkness.”
Christmas doesn’t always mean peace and stillness, however. In fact, it hadn’t meant those things from the very beginning. The birth of Christ may have brought the Prince of Peace, but the times were anything but peaceful. We should remember that about two years after the first Christmas, there was a mass execution of infants and toddlers in and around Bethlehem because the Christ child was born. Let us not forget that after tidings of comfort and great joy were delivered and after a young woman was pronounced blessed because she was to be the mother of the Messiah, countless baby boys were snatched away from their loving families and murdered. Let’s be honest about what Christmas really is.
The gospel text says when the Magi came from Persia to worship the Christ child, Herod and all the region were disturbed. He asked them to bring him word when they found the baby boy so that he, too, could go and worship him. But he had no intention of worshiping the boy. His intentions were to secure his throne and preserve his power by any means necessary. And his means would prove horrific. The Magi had been warned not to tell Herod where the Christ child was and to go home another way, and when Herod realized he had been deceived by the delegation, he decided he would take matters into his own hands and have every little boy aged two years and under killed. Now, I must stop and wonder if anyone stepped in to try to stop this. Someone had to know this was wrong. Even in ancient Egypt when Pharaoh had ordered a similar slaughter, there were Shiprah and Puah. There were midwives who protected the baby boys. There was Jochebed and Miriam who watched over the basket that carried Moses to Pharaoh’s palace and nursed him. There was resistance to Pharaoh. Was there any such resistance to Herod? And if not, why not?
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to become refugees in Egypt to escape the unthinkable violence perpetrated by their own government. And today, countless babies continue to die by gun violence and over policing that their government refuses to ameliorate. They die by human trafficking, hunger, poverty, and lack of adequate health care. They die by neglect, abuse, and addiction. They die by suicide. They are killed in war and perish in their family’s attempts to escape violence. As Rachel wept for her children, countless parents weep for theirs in Syria, Myanmar, and Ukraine. They weep for children who perish in droughts, floods, storms, and the myriad impacts of our climate crisis. They weep for children whom they’ve had to raise in cancer cells and bury far too young. They weep for children poisoned by their own drinking water. They weep for children who die of diseases that should have been eradicated years ago because raw sewage is being pumped into their communities. Rachel weeps. This is Christmas.
We should be careful as Christians to not over-romanticize Christmas. Yes, Christmas heralds the coming of a Savior upon whose shoulders the government shall rest. But know that the forces of evil, greed, and hubris are not simply going to roll over and accept a new order in which their privilege will be displaced. They will resist and they will do it forcefully. It will be ugly and violent, and those who are already most vulnerable will suffer the most. Never underestimate the lengths to which power will go or that it will even endanger itself simply to retain power.
This is why, dear Christian, you and I can’t afford to be so invested in delusion. And we certainly cannot afford to give into the despair and cynicism that can set in when Christmas doesn’t bring the idyllic postcard for which we’d hoped. Rachel is weeping! Will we console her? Will we preemptively console other Rachels by protecting their children? Will we stand up to systemic poverty? Will we stand up for those who have been thrown away in Flint, Jackson, and the Navajo nation? Will we stand against attempts to strip the most vulnerable from protections that are already too few? Will we keep standing until Rachel’s tears are dried?
“Another year over and a new one just begun.” With his protest song, Lennon invited us to reimagine this season and our place in it. At the start of a new year, we have a fresh set of opportunities to be agents of justice, healing, and consolation in a world that has for so long had too little of those things.
Denise Anderson is a writer, artist, and minister who has served multiracial and intercultural churches. She is the Director of Compassion, Peace, and Justice Ministries at the Presbyterian Mission Agency in Louisville, Kentucky Denise also served as Co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).