As we are all saying, this is by far the strangest holiday season we have had in living memory. Well, at least in my living memory, which goes back six decades. Some people are throwing themselves into it, trying to find a place for joy in the midst of either relative or severe hardship. The effort to restore normal joy is evidenced in strange ways. Just now, where I am, in a county in Western North Carolina, Christmas trees are literally sold out. Not a tree to be found anywhere. I tried on December 18. Nope. I’ve never heard of such a thing. A local told me they think that it’s because of Covid. So many people are fed up with being isolated they’ve decided to go big on the Christmas celebration. Good on em!
Others (well, lots of the big celebrators too, I supposed) are just depressed. Others are suffering serious financial hardship. No one I know is really much enjoying it they way they would like. Many of you, too, I suppose. I’ll admit I’m having trouble generating seasonal joy.
I’ve been doing my best. Played the carols. Put up the decorations. Wrapped the presents. Family is here (we have had a tiny bubble since this thing began, but went into quarantine so we could have my son, daughter-in-law, two and a half year old marvel of a grandson, and the seven-week-old-finest-human-ever-to-appear on the planet granddaughter with us for a few days. There is joy in the midst of sorrow – less sorrow for myself (I’m doing well, personally), than for the state of the world.
And, as is my wont, I’ve been thinking about the Christmas message, this year more than ever precisely in light of the state of the world. Even as an agnostic, I find the message moving, even if I don’t believe it. The coming of Christ in the Christian gospel is all about the world receiving the greatest gift, a divine child who is the Prince of Peace. We continue to live in a world that desperately needs a Prince of Peace.
I don’t need to remind you of our dire situation. But I think I will remind myself. Every day – nearly every day now – we are losing more people to Covid than we lost at Pearl Harbor. Every day. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Apart from that, our country is massively divided on political lines and the divisions are getting deeper and the distrust and hatred growing stronger, with no hope of healing, and certainly almost no political will for it. Both sides want to nuke the other, sometimes literally. Meanwhile people suffer. Job losses, unexpected want, lines at food banks, evictions – not to mention overflowing hospitals, horrible illness, the loss of loved ones, day in day out, so that now 3000 is just a number to us (was it more or less yesterday?). How does one not despair?
In light of that, I reflect on the Christmas message. As that message is normally heard, Christianity has always claimed that God is there and concerned and willing to help, if not to solve the problem with the snap of his divine fingers, then at least to provide comfort and hope for those in desperate straits, and even for those mourning others who are. People do find solace, that is certain; whether other help arrives from above is a matter of some dispute, between sincere believers and sincere unbelievers.
But here is the one thing I don’t understand. The Prince of Peace entered into this world in abject poverty. Born to peasants in awful conditions. The crib was a foul cattle trough. First visitors were societal low-dregs (shepherds). He was not well received by those with money and status. Soon after his birth the local ruler murdered all the babies in order to dispatch him. He and his family were forced by local conditions to emigrate and then resettle, just to survive. Moreover, when this Prince of Peace became an adult he had a clear message, and it was decidedly not that he had raised himself by his own bootstraps to become rich and powerful and wanted to show others how they too could do so.
He opposed those in power; he did not support them in their power. The high and mighty were going to get their due when God was done with them, and it was the humble would be exalted. God was interested in the poor. The rich had to give away their wealth if they wanted to enter the kingdom. God was not interested in national boundaries – not even those of his chosen people. Belonging to the right nation had no bearing on anything in relation to God. Neither did outward religiosity, piety, insisting that others follow the divine law, priding oneself in one’s own remarkable success in doing so. These were not the people on the side of God. On the side of God were the outcasts, the marginalized, the foreigners, the powerless, the impoverished.
So this is what I don’t understand: why so many of the alleged followers of the Prince of Peace not only refuse to accept his teaching but by and large preach *against* it, standing precisely for what he stood against. It’s as if they haven’t read their Bibles. It’s all there – in Jesus’ teachings, in the Old Testament prophets he based his message on, in the gospel proclaimed by his earliest followers. God is not on the side of the rich and powerful and eager to make it so all his people will be rich and powerful. God is on the side of the poor and powerless and anyone who wants to follow God needs to be on their side as well.
Most people rejected this message in Jesus’ day as well. And how did they react to his message? They crucified him. That’s what you do to the Prince of Peace when he preaches what you don’t want to hear. You torture him to death.
We need a Prince of Peace today. And those who claim to follow him should seriously think about actually heeding his message. It was about helping those less fortunate than yourself. Not exploiting them to your own ends, not pretending they don’t matter if they are poor, outcast, desperate, foreign, black, brown, of a different gender identity, or ideological persuasion, or political view, or from a different country.
Of course we all want joy, happiness, and peace in our lives. We will not get there by promoting hatred and disdain for others who are not like us and ignoring those all around us who are in need.
I hope you can find some joy and peace in this holiday season. When these various crises are over, and new ones arise, and yet others after that, we will need continually to reflect on what it means to live well and right. If we call ourselves Christian, do we choose to follow Jesus’ message or some other message and claim that *that* is what he really meant? If we are not Christian, how do we live to make ourselves the best people we can be both in relation to ourselves and to those around us – not just those literally around us but those in our spheres of knowledge? In either case, it certainly would help, in this Christmas season, to consider thoughtfully the message of the season and of the Prince of Peace.