This Christmas season you will find no shortage of sentimentalism when it comes to reflections, images, songs, greeting cards, movies, comments, etc. on the baby Jesus.
Who can forget Ricky Bobby saying grace to "Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn, little cuddly infant Jesus" in Talladega Nights? That was a moment too satirically honest about how we transform Jesus into our image and how we enlist him in our causes for me to be offended.
Even though we are only a week into Advent, I would love to take a poll of how many times we have each already heard the phrase "the real meaning of Christmas." I am not opposed to rejecting fake meanings and pursuing more authentic ones, however it seems that when I hear that little phrase pop up, it lacks enough substance to be challenging or stimulating. This phrase has cousins. You've met them... "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," "Keep Christ in Christmas," "It's better to give than to receive." Don't get me wrong. At a strictly definitional reading of these statements, I am in complete agreement. It is simply that when I hear them most, they often seem like wingless birds. What potential they contain is stripped of power just as soon as they launch out of our mouths. We toss them out with a brief, perfunctory gaze to the distant, almost ethereal horizon of God's enfleshment. I rarely hear them used as a radical critique of cultural practices nor as marching orders to inlist in the conspiracy that is God's incarnation.
Christmas, if it is anything, is a radically dangerous, prophetically subversive, offensively undermining statement to our world in general and to our own North American culture in particular.
There is a great and immeasurable difference, despite superficial similarities, between the sappy sentimentalism of the Christmas of civil religion and the subversive vulnerability of God displayed in His Advent.
What is the difference? And how do we know which songs, conversations, actions, ideas, etc. belong in which category?
Though there are some examples that are obviously one or the other, most of what we say, practice, preach, think, do, etc. can live in either world. The same words in different mouths, the same actions in different hands can be an expression of impotent religious mush or a missional embodiment of God's conspiracy to dismantle this world and build His Kingdom. What we have to ask ourselves is whether or not our words about Christmas, our songs about Jesus' birth, our actions this season have any teeth.
One example of a song that I really enjoy that could fall on either side of this discussion is Joseph's Lullaby by Mercy Me. If you haven't heard it, please go give it a listen. This song is Joseph singing to infant Jesus. It is a father pondering the mystery of the divine weight of heaven expressed in his own small son. It is a father tenderly wanting his son to rest and chase his dreams because there is a long and painful road to come.
Now, this song could easily fit in the former category. Just look at some of the youtube compilations for this song. There are a number that are very cutesy and emotional. As a dad of two young boys, this song can very easily keep me there. And if it did it would be heart warming, touching, and pleasant. It makes me think of singing to my boys when they were too young to know or say my name. It makes me think of how weak, dependent, and preciously vulnerable they once were.
But... I don't have to leave it there. I can't leave it there. I also think this song can serve as a guide to lead me to the second category.
The place of subversive vulnerability.
What do I mean?
Well, first, let me say this. I am not a Christian because of apologetics. I use that word narrowly as a description of a defense of Christianity (or God or the Bible etc.) through the systematic use of reason and scientific proof. I am not a Christian because the existence of God has been proven to me by airtight arguments. I am not a Christian because the virgin birth or the resurrection has somehow been proven to me as undeniably, factually true. I read Case for Christ and enjoyed it, but it is not why I am giving my life to the Jesus Story.
I am a Christian because the Story is so utterly compelling that I want it to be true. I am a Christian because the Narrative is so beautiful that it is saturated with Truth. I am a Christian because the Saga of God in the world in human flesh resonates deeply with my soul and what I believe to be the only hope for mankind.
And, when I say these things I am not simply speaking of the forgiveness won on the cross to guarantee life after death. No, when I say "hope for mankind" I am talking about the here, the now, the economic, civic, social, political, religious, lives of mankind on earth today.
And it is when I apply the Advent Story to this reference point - the now - that it reveals the subversive vulnerability to which I am referring.
I will let Mary and Paul (but not Peter!) speak for me:
Here is part of the song Mary sung at the announcement of God-made-flesh:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Here is part of the poem Paul recited to remind the church that they follow a God-made-flesh:
Jesus, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The mystery of Advent is that God dealt with the power of evil in the world with powerlessness. What is so life-alteringly compelling about the Jesus Story is that God overturns evil with love, God subverts strength with weakness, God destroys violence with suffering.
The reason I am a Christian is because this story tells me of a God who came into our world to undermine power not capture it, to reject wealth not accumulate it, to suffer violence not inflict it. I am a Christian because Jesus refused to take up the weapons of the empire to overthrow it. Jesus tosses rulers off their thrones, condemns the rich, ridicules power, refuses returning evil for evil. The mystery of Advent is that it is the only Story crazy enough to actually bring into our world in the here and now the kind of social, civic, political, religious mode of operation that can heal brokenness.
So... how do we know which side we are celebrating on - the sentimental or the subversive?
In many ways that is a conversation that we must have face-to-face with co-journeyers who long to welcome with us the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
But, I would like to suggest this:
We cannot simply build a heart-warming nativity scene on the side of a path that leads to a prophet-pursuing, comfort-creating, war-supporting, power-seeking, self-fulfilling way of life that so pervades our culture. The Nativity is the beginning of a way of life where we empty ourselves of power, where we forfeit claims to our rights, where ignominious servanthood is honorable, where enemies are loved, where violence is rejected, where wealth is refused and redistributed, where the song of Mary and the poetry of Paul actually makes sense in the context of our lives being lived.
In the 80's the Guatemalan government banned the public recitation of Mary's song! If we in the US rejected sentimentality for ears to hear the subversive social, missional implications of that text, it may cause riots to read it in our American churches. Gustavo Gutierrez once said, “Any exegesis is fruitless that attempts to tone down what Mary’s song tells us about preferential love of God for the lowly and the abused, and about the transformation of history that God’s loving will implies."
And... it is the riot-causing subversive vulnerability of the One to whom Joseph sang lullabies that makes this Narrative compelling enough for me to give my life to.
Will we be moving towards the self-emptying, power-rejecting subversive vulnerability of Christmas this year?