As the traditional day for the celebration of the birth of the Savior approaches, one cannot ignore the age-old debates that we’ve heard recurring every year. It is the debate about whether Jesus was really born on December 25. This year, I’m confident, would be no exception.
January 5th, January 6th, March 25th, March 28th, April 19th, April 20th, May 20th, August 21st, November 17th and November 19th. Over the past few decades, many people have come to conclude that "December 25th" represents not the birthday of a "historical" savior named Jesus Christ, but the time of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the day begins to become longer than the night, and the sun is said to be "born again," "renewed," or "resurrected." This academic conclusion has served to cloud the Christian conviction about the reason for the season.
Over the past few years, the polarizing debate about the separation of church and state has opened the door for an assault upon the display of traditional artifacts and regalia that remind us of the Bethlehem event and its significance. By and large, those who seek to mute the Christmas message are oblivious to the contribution that Christians have made to the fight against societal injustices and advocacy for an end to war, prejudice, and hatred. Christians, globally, have been salt and light in a world that believes it is not possible to achieve enduring peace and equality without the liberating message that Jesus brings, and for which he died. This Christmas message has been heralded with intentional and unbridled passion.
This year, Christmas has its unique and unprecedented challenges! The near collapse of the global financial systems in the last two years might make Christmas for millions of Christians less about Him and more about mere survival. It is practically difficult to forget about the everyday problems with which we are being plagued, to give attention to an occasion that comes around once a year. To suspend the reality of pain, hunger, homelessness, war, brutality, genocide, and unemployment is no easy feat. Those of us who have not fared as badly as our brothers and sisters, whose every waking moment is about making it to the next day, or next meal, can very easily fall prey to the callousness towards our neighbors’ conditions, as did the proverbial Levites and priests on the Samaritan road.
It is incumbent upon Christians to continue the struggle to keep the Christmas message the main message. This message can only be kept alive by a return to the biblical narrative of Luke’s gospel. It is Luke who gave the most succinct announcement of Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace!” We cannot divorce the first part of the announcement from the second. The birth of Christ announces to the world that a heavenly preoccupation alone is highly inadequate to justify a reason for the season. Christ has come to give us the capacity to seek and facilitate peace on earth.
The good news to our world this season, more than at any other time, is that it is possible for Christians to join the army of peacemakers. In these tough economic times, when the dollar has lost its almighty status, there must be some good news. And that good news is that we are in solidarity with the plight of the destitute, unfortunate, forgotten, and hopeless. Peace on earth – emotional, physical, psychological, and mental – can only be achieved, when our world is reminded that there is unacceptable and unnecessary suffering that must be eliminated from our everyday vocabulary. No one wants to hear of the babe in the manger whose place in history is irrelevant to the wanton suffering of those caught in the throes of corporate greed and societal abandonment.
In 336 AD, a significant change was made in the Roman calendar that has had some unintended consequences for the good. In that year, the calendar reference to December was changed from “Natalis Solis Invicti” (Sun of Righteousness) to “Natalis Christus in Betleem Judeae (Son of Righteousness). This change was made to reflect the change from allegiance to the luminary planet, to the Christ of Bethlehem in Judea. This was an attempt to take the attention away from the sun-god, to an allegiance to the Son of Righteousness. As such, the Son made it possible for the ushering in of a holistic peace that includes all aspects of life, from the most personal to the most public aspects, from the most individual to the deeply social aspects.
It is in this Bethlehem manger that the message of peace on earth is often forgotten. In this manger is to be found the paradox of reversal that hopefully will be remembered this Christmas season, when so many are asking the existential question of the hopelessness of suffering and pain. Is there a hidden promise that eludes us all? I think there is!
The announcement to the shepherds implied that God’s reign of the politics of peace had begun, and that God’s renovation of the social, political, and cultural order had dawned. What is true of most signs is also true about the sign of the advent of the Messiah. Most signs have a hidden and often esoteric message, more than what is detected by the naked eye. No one expected the Messiah to be temporarily located in a manger. How ridiculous, some must have surmised. But that indeed is the message this Christmas. God is capable, with God’s human army, to reverse the conditions in which brothers and sisters are forced to live.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the Lukan passage finds its context in Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6-7 is written in the midst of a political climate that demands our attention. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been pillaged by war and politically taken over. The culture was bankrupt as a result of war. And now the Southern Kingdom of Judah, to whom Isaiah was issuing his prophecy, stood on the edge of similar plunder. His prophecy was that they were on the verge of being invaded by the Assyrians and banished from the land. The temple and the other monuments of their culture stood on the brink of desolation or of being lost. The people cried, “Would God utterly forsake God’s people?” “Would God utterly abandon God’s beloved?” The response to the people was one of hope, that cultural, social, and political oppression does not have the last word. God, being who God is, will inevitably intervene in earth’s affairs. And God’s intervention is always God working the impossible feat, like a Liberator being born in a manger.
Christians, in the reading of Luke and the other evangelists as well, have understood the Christmas birth of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, as fulfilling Isaiah 9:6. Jesus is the child born of God, the one born in weakness and in the poverty of a manger. His birth disrupts the social order and sets culture and politics on a new and redemptive path. With his presence in the world, the narrow-minded, closed, and self-contained realities of politics and culture are opened up. Revolution has dawned. New cultural possibilities are envisioned. We live no longer out of a confined and astringent past, but into the future, God’s future with us. With God’s presence, and in the form of his child-like weakness and glory, God has opened up all closed systems and made freedom an embodied reality. This freedom is called liberation, which is the freedom that is now oriented to the God of creation, who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
It is the gathering of the shepherds at the birth of God in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, and the freedom instituted through his lowly birth, that a well-known song of black culture celebrates. Indeed, it is the song that served as the theme around which James Baldwin constructed a celebrated novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.
The shepherds feared and trembled
When low above the earth,
Rang out the angels chorus
That hailed our Savior's birth.
While shepherds kept their watching
o'er silent flocks by night,
Behold, throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light
And lo! When they had heard it,
They all bowed down to pray,
Then travelled on together,
To where the Baby lay.
Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.