The stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are great treasures of the human heritage, significant far beyond the community of people who accept Jesus as the Christ. Most of those stories, in one way or another, express two of the great themes of the Christian religion. The first is that God is the gracious giver of good gifts. This theme can be understood by children. We Americans have turned Christmas into a children’s holiday, focusing on the baby Jesus as a gift to the world, responding with a celebration of gifts to Jesus and gifts to our own children and to one another. Now is not the time to complain about the materialism and consumerism of the American Christmas—time enough for that later. Now we should simply rejoice in the practice of giving gifts to others, one of the very best senses in which human beings can embody the image of God. We rejoice also in the practice of gratitude for gifts received, which is the essence of piety. God’s gifts, of course, are cosmic: God creates the world, God shapes its evolution to provide a habitat for human beings, God gives us consciousness, reason, and freedom, God redeems us when we fall, and God gives us a home in eternity. The sum of our gratitude for all these things is becoming lovers and givers like God. Children get a fore-taste of this heavy-duty Christian metaphysics in the gift-giving of Christmas.
The second great theme of the Christmas stories is not easily accessible to children. It is that God’s gifts turn upside down the customary expectations of the world, especially those about power, authority, and righteousness. The core of Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, says God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” God gave a child to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth when she was far too old to conceive, and the angel Gabriel remarked that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Jesus was the heir of David, but he was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. The wise men brought riches, not for King Herod who wanted their obeisance but for the baby in the stable. Who remembers Herod the Great now except as a villain in Jesus’ story? God turns human expectations upside down and history is filled with divine irony.
We Americans are living through a crisis of expectations turned upside down, and it causes great confusion. Our sense of national identity, of the values that make us Americans, is grounded in the mythos of our origins. The real history is more complex than the mythos, and yet the mythos is the source of our commitments to justice and national integrity. Have we been turned upside down and forgotten our origins? Have we Americans forgotten the covenant of our youth as a nation, the gratitude to God for our love of freedom and self-determination, of brotherhood and justice for all? Have we forgotten that the founders of New England sought the land here to be free, free especially to practice their religion, because they were not free to do so in England? Have we forgotten that the colonists fought a bloody war of Independence from England because the so-called mother country disregarded that freedom and tried to enforce an imperial economic order that was not to the advantage of the colonies? Have we forgotten that the colonists were farmers and shopkeepers, not professional soldiers, and that they faced the overwhelming might of the modern 18th century British military, plus mercenary allies? Have we forgotten that we lost nearly every pitched battle but won an underdog’s guerilla war? Have we forgotten that the British came back with greater force in the War of 1812, swept through the country, burned Washington and savaged the people, and yet lost to our rag-tag guerilla forces? Two weeks after the peace was signed, but before the news of that reached him, Andrew Jackson won the battle of New Orleans against a vastly superior marine invasion force. The Americans’ hastily assembled defense included the outlaw pirates of Jean Lafitte.
This is the American mythos of the common people, often slightly outside the law that would grind them down, defending their freedom against overwhelming forces of shock and awe, defying an oppressor who seeks to constrain Americans into a larger imperial political and economic system that is not to their own perceived interest. When shall we remember that covenant of freedom and justice for the humble people that was the source of our righteousness as a nation before God, the mythos that was our moral compass?
Since last Christmas we have invaded Iraq for no apparent legitimate reason except to force America’s economic and political vision on that country, the “American Empire” as some neo-conservatives call it. Perhaps there is a better justification for our undeclared war than I can discern: the situation is complicated. Nevertheless, we went into Iraq with overwhelming military force and smashed their standing army. But the Iraqi opposition , those defending their homelands and the whole Muslim world they perceive to be under attack, have mounted ever more effective guerilla actions to discredit the American occupation forces. We turned Saddam Hussein, a thug as bad as Osama bin Laden, albeit our one-time ally, into a Robin Hood hero defending the little people against the high tech rich and distant oppressors. Even more tragically we have let our own children in the military, for whom we pray daily, be seen around the world as like the hated imperial Sardaukar of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, who for all their technological superiority and savage training could not defeat the underground Fremen. In some parts of Iraq we have since rebuilt resources that we had destroyed, as well as some that had been allowed to deteriorate under Saddam. Yet the more cynical among us note that, having destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq, now American companies in league with the Administration are getting rich attempting to rebuild that infrastructure.
Our American founding mythos, itself so like the Magnificat, has been turned upside down. When will we remember that America sides with the underdog against the bully, with the right of economic self-determination rather than coercion to fit an economy that favors richer parts of the world, with the right to practice the religion of conscience? This is our true covenant as Americans. Some American prophet needs to remind us of the heritage that defines us, not the greed that defiles us.
Of course there is an American counter-mythos. The heroic general, Andrew Jackson, became the president who governed under the principle that to the victor belong the spoils. As many if not more early immigrants to America sought their personal fortune more than freedom and brotherhood. The great American entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum is quoted to say there is a sucker born every minute. Many people in the Third World say that this gospel of greed is the true American mythos, that our appeals to higher morals are hypocritical, and that American foreign behavior and domestic materialism are all the evidence needed to justify these claims. In this Advent time, when we present ourselves for judgment and look forward to the Prince of Peace, we find ourselves turned wrongly upside down, standing for the things we’ve always stood against. Can we be turned again?
Praise God that the Babe who is coming can make all things new. If we have turned ourselves upside down, we can be turned back right again. As Americans we can turn to side with the small people, the hun
gry and the poor. God empowers us to do this by coming to us with love. We do not have to repent first so that God then will love us. God loves us before repentance, and has come to proclaim that love in the Christ whose incarnation we are about to celebrate. Of course we condemn ourselves, as my words just now were self-condemning. Not only do we condemn ourselves individually, we condemn ourselves as a people, feeling the betrayal of the religious foundation of America at some unconscious level and trumpeting a self-righteous me-first patriotism to cover up the feeling. Unrepentant self-condemnation is the ordinary condition of terror with which we live just below the level of consciousness.
God’s love breaks through that. God’s love does not give up. Every year the calendar comes around with Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation. We don’t have to go to God, because if we did, as unrepentant self-condemners we would not. God comes to us. God fills our lives with love’s grace that overcomes the worst we can do.
The great Christian theme that God turns human expectations upside down puts the bully, the proud, the powerful, and the rich under judgment. This holds for nations as well as individuals. The infant power of the coming Babe exalts the poor, the humble, the common, the hungry, the lowly. The first will be last and the last first.
As servants of the Infant, we Christians have special obligations for our gift-giving gratitude, the other great Christian theme. Of course we gift our families and friends. Of course we gift the poor and needy in our neighborhood and city. Now we can gift those whom our upside down American policy has bullied. What a gift it would be to the Iraqi people if all American dollars for rebuilding their country were contracted to worker-owned Iraqi companies, not foreign ones! What a gift if such companies could be set up with American advisors paid by the American government rather than the companies’ profits! What a gift, and statement of the Infant’s Power, if the economic interests of the United States and its allies were forbidden to profit from the war, and instead the United States could implement reconciliation commissions to bring together the conflicting factions within that country, and between Iraq and its neighbors! Gratitude for God’s love manifest in creation, the evolution of human societies, and our personal and national life, should explode in gifts that manifest God’s turning upside down the expectations of the proud, powerful, and rich. In the divine story of human redemption, the coming of Jesus Christ opens the way for us to be on the right side.
So now let us long for renewed fellowship with the One who gives us power to repent and turn around. Let us call for Christ to come who judges us with truth and blesses us with mercy. Let us go toward Christmas as the celebration of giving, the heart of Christian love. Let us approach the Feast of the Incarnation with a gratitude that can turn our own lives upside down. Come to the table of the Feast to receive the gift of God. Come to the table to meet the Babe, grown, gone, and come again. Come to the table with the procession of Christians from all over the world to receive the Babe. Go from the table to deliver your gifts, which are of God. Amen