Every year at this time, the entire Christian world of more than 2.5 billion people pauses to observe the birth of a martyred Jewish construction worker about 2000 years ago. In America, we tirelessly observe this winter festival with increasing intensity from about Halloween, through Thanksgiving, and the entire month of December – for two solid months.
All during that time, our radio airwaves, and every shop we enter repeat the familiar songs and hymns we’ve come to associate with Christmas. Many of the carols celebrate “the newborn king.” Some even issue the invitation, “Oh, come let us adore him” – as God. Only occasionally (as in the “Little Drummer Boy”) is there the slightest hint that Jesus was “a poor boy too.” But that insight is quickly obscured by that same song’s four references to Jesus as “king.”
However, Jesus’ unmistakable poverty, his conception out of wedlock, his homelessness at birth, his status as asylum-seeker and immigrant in Egypt (MT 2:13-18), his social location in the working class, his association with Zealot insurrectionists (MT 10:4; MK 3:18; LK 6:15; ACTS 1:13), and the fact that he ended up a victim of torture and capital punishment at the hands of empire reveal far more about Yeshua than those popular sentimental Christmas jungles and hymns about a “newborn king.”
But even if we take those latter glorifications seriously, they unwittingly communicate a revolutionary message that the Christmas season completely ignores – one that finds important application to our troubled times.
I’m referring to the fact that calling the impoverished Yeshua “king” turns upside down reigning conceptions about the One some call “God,” and about the people divinely designated to rule the world.
Such references unconsciously point to the truth of Jesus’ words that the “meek” or (better put), the lowly, the humble, the unpretentious, those without public power, the despised and discarded, the gentle and non-violent, are (in God’s eyes) the ones divinely destined to “have the earth for their possession” (Psalm 37: 11; Matthew 5:5). History belongs to them. Despite appearances, it is on their side.
What else can it mean that we call “king” a brown or black homeless child born in a barn and who will remain poor, deep in political trouble all his life and will finish on death row? What else can it mean that such a one was selected to be (according to Christian faith) the ultimate revelation of life’s meaning.
On this Christmas Day 2021, all such considerations should send us to look for God in today’s people and places Yeshua was so deeply a part of. Christmas reflections on the historical Yeshua should find him living in those tents that now dot all our big cities. He’s sleeping under some bridge in DC or NYC. He’s dodging drive-by bullets on Chicago’s South Side and shivering in the cold on the Tijuana border. He’s walking his last mile after his appeal for a stay of execution has been ignored by Trump’s SCOTUS packed with “pro-life” Catholics. His appeal is ignored by governors opening gifts with their lily-white children and filling their bellies with turkey and all the trimmings, after singing “Silent Night” with misty eyes in their heretical megachurch based on prosperity gospel lies.
In the face of all that, the proper hymn to sing is “Oh, come let us ignore him.” Yes, ignore that white supremacist, Jesus. And instead, let us adore the real Yeshua in that filthy, stinking barn. He’s there sharing a roof with the rats and beasts with whom our police forces equate those whose neighborhoods and barrios their militarized platoons occupy as enemy terrain.
If we were to find Yeshua in those unlikely places, how different our interminable Christmas season would be. Yes, suppose Americans (and the world’s other two billion Christians) spent two months each year giving serious reflection to Jesus’ social circumstances as presented in the biblical texts that scholars call “the infancy narratives.”
Doing so would change “the season” to one of national repentance, instead of the orgy of “Christmas shopping” for those who already have more than they need. We’d double down on support for Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. We’d organize to spend the season (any beyond) doing everything possible to eliminate the specific elements that plagued the life of Yeshua — namely:
- Identification of “God” with scepters, armies, priests, and “power over”
- Royalty of all kinds
- Persecution of asylum seekers
- And immigrants
- Imperialism in all its expressions
- Honoring imperial military service as though it were heroic (It’s not!)
- Infanticide (today by drone instead of sword)
- Wars invariably waged against the world’s poor
- Torture of those same impoverished souls
- Capital punishment of the poor [never (please note) the rich]
In other words, historical reflection would cause us to embrace the one whose life and rejection by organized religion and the imperial state reveal the true social location of divine incarnation.
As for the Jesus of our hymns, carols, and Christmas jingles, “Oh (please!), come let us ignore him.”
P.S. We might replace the ignored one’s hymns with Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ:”