Why Christmas is radical

(RNS) It’s tempting to turn Christmas into a safe holiday that asks little of us. But that would ignore the prophetic, subversive life of Jesus, writes John Gehring.

A Festival of Trees event includes a live Nativity scene at St. Anthony’s Retreat in Three Rivers, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2016. Photo by Tommy Lee Kreger/Creative Commons

(RNS) You probably don’t think of Christmas as a revolutionary holiday. Twinkling lights on trees, Starbucks gift cards and sweet carols are not exactly the stuff of subversion. A domesticated Christmas is comforting, but considering our fraught political landscape today we might find better lessons by reflecting on the disruption caused by Jesus’ birth, and the radical implications of his life.

When Magi from the East came to pay homage to the baby Jesus, King Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the region. Mary, Joseph and their newborn fled to Egypt, refugees in search of sanctuary. It’s hard not to think of the terrorized children of Aleppo, and the families drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, without recalling that Jesus was a dark-skinned refugee born under the threat of violence.

The Christian belief in the Incarnation, God taking on human flesh, is from the beginning filled with hope for the downtrodden and warnings to the powerful. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly,” Mary proclaims when told she will bear the Son of God. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” The infant the Magi come to venerate with gold, frankincense and myrrh is not born in a gilded palace. God enters the world in a lowly, dirty place, and reveals himself to a people seeking liberation.

Jesus grows up to discomfort the political and religious elite, overturns cultural norms and challenges theological certainties. Eating with prostitutes and befriending tax collectors, this strange man from Nazareth is a menace and a mystery to many. He is a holy disturber of the peace. A revolutionary without a gun or a political platform, Jesus still continues to teach us that our neighbor isn’t defined by physical proximity, language or religion, but the radical idea that we are all made in the image of God.

What is the Christmas message for our uncertain times? Peace and unity seem as elusive today as they did a millennium ago. Terrorists pervert religion to kill in the name of the holy. Political leaders fund billions for weapons of war, while targeting safety nets for the poor. What Pope Francis calls a “globalization of indifference” anesthetizes us to pain and despair. If Christ showed up on Capitol Hill or Wall Street, we can easily imagine his lamentations.

It’s tempting to turn Christmas into a safe holiday that asks little of us. But that would ignore the prophetic, subversive life of Jesus. Christians honor him on this holiday — and the rest of the year — only if we risk the scorn of the powerful to stand with the undocumented immigrant, the Muslim family viewed with suspicion, the refugee fleeing injustice. Jesus brought the margins to the center and welcomed outcasts to the table.

Have we set a place for them?

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church”)

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