What do you picture when you hear “genuine Christmas?”
Is it lights on a tree and carols playing? Is it being home? Is it a spirit of giving and service?
Perhaps you, like me, were the Sunday School student with all the answers so this one feels like a softball: Jesus. (Hint: the answer is always Jesus.) A genuine Christmas has to be about Jesus, of course!
Yes and no.
Before we get all huffy about putting the “Christ” back in Christmas, let’s all take a second to remember what Christmas actually is.
Christmas is about a people fed up, tired, displaced, and wondering if and how God was actually working. Christmas comes from exile– politically, geographically, spiritually. Christmas esteems impossibilities made possible through God, despite a whole culture (religious and secular alike) that stands and scoffs. Christmas highlights just one family’s fear, anxiety, and financial insecurity. Christmas crescendos in a dirty animal storehouse, with a teenager groaning through labour pains. Christmas includes the blood of human childbirth and the necessity of human nourishment.
Is a genuine Christmas about Jesus? Absolutely. It’s just probably not the sweet, chubby baby Jesus who lays down his sweet head in your porcelain Nativity scene. (Nativity scenes are beautiful, by the way. May they live on.)
A genuine Christmas is not solely about celebrating the coming of God to earth. It’s about actually acknowledging our need for him and asking him to arrive in desperate circumstances and disrupt everything. That’s why we celebrate.
The Martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero put it like this:
No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God- for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.
Spoiler: our culture is obsessed with avoiding poverty and praises self-sufficiency. Even as I write this I find myself distracted, looking at sales, exploring products, dreaming about “when I will finally be able to buy ____.”
We often picture “poverty” as strictly material, but Romero is getting at a more holistic sense of what it means to be impoverished here. Socioeconomic poverty is not in itself redemptive; we know God is a God of justice and he will redeem our broken systems.
Broadly speaking, we still avoid poverty. We nurse savings accounts that pad our income, and practice mindfulness to keep our dark thoughts at bay. We worship physical health and appearance while scanning through social media to see how we are keeping up with the Joneses (and the rest of the world). If we are ahead or better than, we feel good about ourselves. If we see something we cannot have, we envy and gripe about why it isn’t that easy. In it all, there is one underlying goal: to avoid poverty in its fullest sense– financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical.
We want to feel good, be good, do good. But what happens when good is not good enough? When the brokenness and grief still seep through and the Instagram act can be kept up no longer and the family is not together anymore and there was no healing.
There have been more times than one in my life where I very much wanted to treat God like a game of Monopoly. I will invest my pieces right, do some good things here or there, be a good Christian, say a prayer when I need it and eventually collect my $200 as I pass go and be on with my life again. “Thanks God, I’ll check back in if I need anything else.”
But if I have learned anything about God (which I’ll be honest, feels like very little) it’s that this approach does not work. It might for awhile. For some people, it seems to work forever. But I would argue those people never come to know the true, deep, radical love of Jesus.
Because let’s remember: God entered the world vulnerable, and in poverty, indicating that if we want in on this gig, we know where to find him. It won’t be a light display, or even in the nice porcelain Nativity set (though I apologize for the second dig).
We will find God when we are poor, meagre, at the ends of our ropes, for that is where God dwells.
If that isn’t true, then Advent isn’t anything to be all that excited about.
So rather than merry and bright, may your Christmas be genuine. May you find yourself aware of your poverty, your humanity, reaching for God.
When I was a child, I had to be hospitalized for an infection. In an effort to make my sick body well, I needed an IV, which led me to a sterile room with bright lights and unfamiliar faces and hands trying to insert the needle into my arm. All hell broke loose in my mind and body. I screamed and squirmed, even as my mom held me tight. In my longing for true comfort, I became fixated on the fact that my dad was not there. He was rapidly on his way after he had heard was happening, but could only get there so fast and my four-year-old mind hardly understood. I shrieked, “Daddy!” as I was poked and prodded and I’ll never forget finally being released from the room, tears still wet on my cheeks, my tiny body wrapped in a flimsy gown, bursting out the heavy hospital room door and seeing my dad waiting just outside, seemingly short of breath, having just arrived. I fell into his arms and as he held me tight suddenly, instantly, I was calm. He was there. That was enough.
In that moment I was poor in the sense that I was desperate and aware of my need. I needed someone to come on my behalf. My relief did not come when the needle stopped pinching, but when I relaxed into the presence of someone who loved me protectively and unconditionally. Nearness is a powerful human experience in that way.
For the poor person–the person in need of God, in need of hope, in need of a Christmas miracle–the wonder and the relief comes in Mary’s final push and the Christ child’s first gasp for air. The fact that God breathed through human lungs here on earth should be enough to take our breath way. Nothing is the same after that.
This is the redemption we long for. Emmanuel. God with us. From his first breath in the barn to his final cry on the cross, God is a God who yearns with us, who cries out with us, who longs with us and for us. Christmas isn’t about getting up to God’s level but remembering that he came down to ours.
So rather than merry and bright, may your Christmas be genuine. May you find yourself aware of your poverty, your humanity, reaching for God. And may you feel the presence of Christ in your very breath, as you experience the wonder of Emmanuel afresh.