This year there was a noticeable lack of emotion related to the supposed “War on Christmas.” We all know that “war” might be a bit dramatic given that the battlefield includes skirmishes over whether one can say “Merry Christmas,” or the changing of coffee bean flavors from “Christmas” to “holiday” themes.
One reason there was so little discussion of the “war” is that much of the battle focuses on retail practices. With the pandemic causing so many retail places to be closed or limited in their occupancy, the main battlefield was taken away from us.
Doesn’t this reveal something about what we value as a culture? Why should the Church care about retail practices? One might be tempted to think that the goal of a religion is to have its holiday commodified like everything else.
Markets are too often fundamentally amoral (or better yet immoral). If there is a financial benefit to a practice, economic behavior will trend in that direction. Christmas has become more publicly secular because those in charge of retail thought that it was beneficial for it to be so. The inverse is also true. There is also a market for opposition to secularization. Even resistance is commodified. Talk of Christian persecution generates clicks and views.
In other words, the battle over Christmas has little to do with the events the season remembers. It is about the ability to name the celebratory mood that pervades the month of December. When the pandemic took away the celebratory mood, we lost the will. This reveals that the fight over Christmas can be viewed as a contest about who has the right to certain spaces in culture. It is about the power of naming. The question that bothers me as a Christian is whether this power of naming, the perceived right to take up space, is good for us. Too often when Christians have had power, we have used this ability to name and take up space poorly. Historically, Christianity has been at its best when it has attempted to influence through service and love, not through domination. I also wonder about how this fight over space squares with a story of a God who became very small, a child.
The Christmas story is about a lot of things, but one of its most salient themes is power and how Christians believe God acts in the world. Mary, Jesus’ mom, says it plainly. In Luke’s Gospel she reflects on what it means that God chose her to bring Jesus into the world. She says, “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” (Luke 1:52-53 NRSV). For Mary, Jesus’ coming into the world is about upsetting power structures. It means that the ignored and stepped-on people of the world, the disinherited, have a champion. The rich, who use their finances for personal gain, have a foe.
Christmas is not about God simply caring for the disinherited. He becomes the disinherited. Jesus was born to a people under the thumb of a vast and often heartless empire, taxed and exploited in the land of their ancestors. Even though he lacks power, he does not solve the problem in the first place by gathering power to himself or by imposing his will. He becomes a child.
Anyone who has paid any attention to culture over the last few months has been enraptured by The Mandalorian. At the center of this show is a child — the same species as Yoda, but way cuter — who seems to carry so much promise and hope for the future, but needs protection and care. The pull that many of us feel towards a small green puppet gets at why we are so attracted to weakness and innocence: they invite us to hope.
What would it mean for Christians to hear this message about the inversion of power, about hope through weakness, as the Christmas season gives way to Epiphanytide?
It might mean that we turn our eyes toward those whom the world neglects. It might mean we are freed to find common cause with perceived enemies.
It is here that the stereotypical Christmas movies come close to capturing a vital theme of the Christmas narrative. In many of our favorite holiday films, the story turns on a jolt of compassion, causing a character to attend to things or people that they would normally ignore. The long-lost son is invited home to dinner. The homeless person is given a meal and a place to stay. Love springs up in the most unexpected of places as snow litters the landscape. All these small acts are examples, enacted parables, of what Christians believe Christmas entails, a turning toward the forgotten. What helps the Christmas story transcend a vague sense of compassion is the Christian idea that all people, the rich and poor alike, are in different ways in need of God’s compassion. The Christmas story collapses the space between “us” and “them.” Instead, the whole throng of humanity finds itself around a baby in a manger.
A true recovery of Christmastide, then, might reorder the Christian infatuation with power.
Much of the discourse over the last election cycle was about control of the courts and the presidency. Christians were told over and over that if we lost access to power, then we would meet some horrible fate. But it is hard to spend a month preparing to celebrate the fact that an all-powerful God became a baby, while at the same time maintaining that hope for the future resides in keeping political influence. Yes, elections matter and votes have consequences. But if the Christmas holiday means anything, it shows us that the most important events often happen away from centers of power and influence.
Holidays are always an opportunity to remember, a chance to recover what the weeks and months have washed away. An anniversary is a chance to rekindle a fading love. A birthday is a chance to find space for joy and celebration. Christmastide, even in its last gasps, holds out the possibility of memory, of a recovering. Christians might discover that we do not need power to accomplish the work that we feel called to do. We might find out that the very people we are being told that we must fight are the people we have been called to love.
I am not sure that I care what they name the coffee beans this December or what movies they show on my television. I don’t need a cable channel to show A Charlie Brown Christmas. I can find it myself on the myriad of streaming services that litter my screens. I am concerned with the ways in which those in the Church attend to those society forgets. I do care about both the ends and the means. I do not want us to gain power and lose ourselves in the process.
The last characters who enter the stage that first Christmas were shepherds, not princes or rulers or those who seem to have the ability to bend the world to their will. Shepherds were normal working-class folks, those easily forgotten but lifted to a place of prominence through their encounter with the newborn child. The point of their presence couldn’t be more self-evident. The question is whether in a power-mad world Christians are still willing to learn it.
The Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.