Earlier this year, the comedian Chris Rock received a lot of press for his Saturday Night Live remarks on the commercialization of Christmas. Here is part of what he said:
It's America, we commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas. Christmas is Jesus's birthday! Now I don't know Jesus, but from what I've read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth. Jesus kept a low profile and we turned his birthday to the most materialistic day of the year. [SNL 11/1/14]
I don’t think there’s much to disagree with here, except to note that even in its beginnings in the late days of the Roman Empire, Christmas had as much to do with celebrating the prevailing culture as it did the birth of Jesus. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, one of the first things the imperial church did was to transform Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival, into Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’s birth. So to be fair, even those of us who want to “Keep Christ in Christmas” must admit we’re rowing up a very determined historical stream.
Still, some of the wretched excess of the season is hard to defend. Beyond the ritzy gifts, we all get too many of those seasonal letters detailing the tribulations of affluence. (You know—“Thank God Chip was back at Andover when our yacht sank.”) There is a wonderful New York Times blog post this weekend [“Big City” 12/26/14] called “The Season of the Wealfie” in which Gina Bellafante describes a new holiday trend. According to Bellafante, a Manhattan advertising executive “recently coined the term [Wealfie] to refer to, as he put it in a column for The New York Observer last month, ‘selfies taken in a luxury context that confirm one has money, status and social currency.’” She goes on to explain:
The paradigmatic wealfie is the image you take of yourself getting on or off a private jet, possibly on your way to New Year’s Eve in Morocco or Anguilla. . . . But to the extent that people so closely identify with the things that they buy and receive, the picture shot of the Hermès or Chanel or Prada gift “unboxed” and then posted on Instagram is another kind of wealfie. Of course, there are so many ways to broadcast status these days.
You bet. The trend in early admissions to elite colleges makes Christmas a great time for parents to brag. More from Bellafante’s piece:
Two weeks ago, a shipping executive posted a picture on Facebook of two mugs on a counter with a Christmas tree in the distance. One mug said, “Amherst Mom,” the other, “Amherst Dad.” The status update read, “An early Christmas gift from our son upon his acceptance to Amherst College, class of ’19.” This is actually a wealfie that can perform double duty, given that it makes known not only that your child got in, but also that you seem undeterred by the list price of, in the case of Amherst, $60, 400 in tuition, fees, room and board.
Whether we call it the season of commercialism or wealfies, modern Christmas still can’t seem to shake the Roman Empire’s and Christendom’s association of the season with power. Consciously or not, we continue to use Christmas, as our forbears did, to project an image of God as powerful, victorious, and bold—very like a Roman emperor or medieval king. But when we actually read the New Testament, it doesn’t talk about the birth of Jesus in terms of power at all. Listen again to these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [Galatians 4:4-7]
What Paul is saying has little in common with our ancient or modern triumphal celebrations of Christmas. God is born to us in Jesus so that all of us might receive adoption as God’s children. Christmas is not about God defeating enemies or proving who’s boss. Christmas is about God’s unfolding strategy of gathering and reconciling the whole world in one embrace of love. After the birth of Jesus, we are no longer God’s slaves. We are now God’s children. Slavery is a relationship based on power. Child-parent status is one based on love. Christmas changes everything.
It has always struck me as significant that Christmas celebrates God coming among us as a child, the weakest and least powerful expression of human life. Yet we continue to use the season to talk about God’s power and might. But there are other, pre-imperial, more authentic ways to understand what Jesus’s birth can mean for us today. This year Kathy and I received a Christmas card from our longtime friends Harvey and Doris Guthrie—Harvey is a retired Old Testament scholar, seminary dean, and parish priest who preached here last May—and this card was if anything the opposite of the wealfie. In it they quoted this verse from a hymn, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” by the 18th century English poet Christopher Smart:
O the magnitude of meekness!
Worth from worth immortal sprung;
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!
It’s clear from these words that Christopher Smart understands something about Christmas that many of our more familiar hymn writers don’t quite get. Christmas is not a demonstration of divine power. It is exactly the reverse. It is a demonstration of divine weakness.
By coming when and where he did and as whom he did, God shows us something about how things finally are. We human beings are easily misled and confused. Glittery things distract us from what is really valuable. In the end it is not about power. It is about love. We often mistake the one for the other. But real love--divine love, Jesus’s love—is not about power at all. God knows us as we are—complicated, willful, distracted creatures—and yet God still chooses to be one of us in our most vulnerable state.
For reasons that I will never fully understand, we human beings are ashamed of weakness. We think that strength is normative, and that any deviation from strength is a sign of divine disfavor. But it’s not that way at all. We humans are by nature finite, limited, fragile creatures. As infants we are totally dependent on our parents. As adults we continue to need each other if we are to flourish and survive. That is the way life is. That is the way we are. We don’t like it much, and so we define our frailty as our problem, and we buy into all kinds of bad ideas—political, social, even religious—that promise us a way to escape and transcend our weakness.
Christmas is a time to give up all our pretensions. None of them matter. Our strength is always temporary at best, and it will never save us. Only our solidarity with each other in our weakness will bring about the peace and reconciliation we all seek. God comes among us in Jesus as one of us. As Harvey and Doris say in their card, this season celebrates the coming of One “in whose infant weakness is the strength this old world needs”.
I hope that this week between Christmas and New Year’s Day will afford you the time to take in the deepest truths of the season. Christmas asks that we see ourselves in this Bethlehem infant, weak and vulnerable yet precious and loved. That’s how it is with Jesus; that’s how it is with us. The coming of God among us in fragile human weakness is the greatest present we receive at Christmas, and this divine gift opens up to us the possibility of accepting ourselves and each other as we really are.
There is so much to be thankful for this season. Who needs a wealfie when we have the real thing? God has become one of us in Jesus. His infant weakness is in fact the strength this old world needs. Human and divine are closer than we think. The One at the center of the universe is one of us and with us in our struggles and joys, our hopes and our fears. God now knows what it is to be us, and that knowledge changes everything. In the words of Christopher Smart, the hymn-writing poet who got it right:
God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world He made. Amen.