I will freely confess that one of the blessings of Christmas is the end of the coverage of "the Christmas Wars." On the one hand are the people who act as if someone saying "Merry Christmas" to them is the same thing as Tomás de Torquemada saying, "Missed you in church this Sunday." On the other are the people who think that if they can convince a judge that a Nativity scene has more cultural than religious value, so they can set it up in a public park, somehow that's a win. December 26th allows me to bid the both of them goodbye, and I do so with great joy.
But I do think there is a real war on Christmas, and it has less to do with Nativities and holiday greetings than it does with what the Christ born in a stable represents and what the world around us represents.
Humanity's very first sin was to set itself in the place of God, and that impulse has been at the root of our fallen human condition ever since. Now, it may be that we place something other than ourselves there, like a person or wealth or power or something similar, but the same error reigns -- we have made gods out of that which is not God. We have done it before, we do it today and we shall do it again.
Sometimes we deal with the reality of a person or a system that demands worship from us. The summer blockbuster The Avengers featured a scene in which the evil Loki threatens a crowd of people in a street in Stuttgart, Germany. Brandishing a powerful weapon, he demands that they kneel, and they do. But as he talks about how much simpler life is for people who let themselves be ruled by another and how human beings will always kneel to such people, an old man slowly stands. "In the end, you will always kneel," Loki says, and the man says, "Not to men like you." "There are no men like me," Loki tells him, and the old man looks at him with eyes that show memories steeped in unholy history and says, "There are always men like you."
And there are. There is always a Pharaoh, always a Herod, always a Cæsar, always a fuehrer, always a Dear Leader, always a Big Brother, always someone or something that demands from us the allegiance that properly belongs only to God.
But sometimes we choose to give that allegiance rather than have it demanded of us. We set aside ethics and right treatment of our brothers and sisters in order to acquire wealth and power for ourselves. We treat others as though they have no more value than what they can do for us, and we discard them when we have used them up.
Rudolf Bultmann said that when Jesus entered the world, he posed what Bultmann called the "existential question." That means that the reality of Jesus asks us a question and the way we answer it affects our existence. Will we root and ground our lives in what we see and hear around us? Or will we root and ground our lives in the idea that there is more to life than the material world and that more is God? We can't not choose, it's one or the other and the world is full of people and things that will demand we say "Yes" to them.
That seems ridiculous, because on the other side of the question is the Almighty God, creator of the universe. Who could bring more power to bear than God? In a fight, who would win? If we're talking about demands for allegiance, who could possibly push God aside to say, "You'd better pick me?"
But God does not do that. I think it's because he knows that if he adopts the tactics of fear and force and power, our answer to his question -- "Will you follow me?" -- is meaningless. So instead he will show us that all of the power that can be brought to bear on us can't separate us from him. Neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor powers, nor principalities, nor nakedness nor famine or peril or sword.
Christmas shows us that. On Christmas, God showed all of his cards. He would face down evil and death...and let them win. He would let them win so we could see that their victory was no victory, that the Lord of the heavens and the earth ruled over death also. The human vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth would be the means by which God would triumph.
The baby in the manger was the King before whom all could kneel -- not out of fear, but out of love, thankfulness and praise. He was the Lord who could be loved by the shepherds and by the wise, by tax collectors and the priests, by fishermen and whores, by kings and commoners, and by you and by me. Joy to the world. The Lord is come!