I love Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year! There’s something in the air during Christmas time that’s effervescent and intoxicating at the same time.
The rat race slows down just a bit as people are closing out the year. Everyone is buzzing around the malls and shopping centers buying gifts for their loved ones. Families are gathering to spend quality time roasting chestnuts and eating fruitcake. Okay, maybe nobody’s actually roasting chestnuts, but Nat King Cole said so and I believe Nat King Cole implicitly!
Nevertheless, roasting chestnuts or not, it’s still the most wonderful time of the year. By this time the snow has already begun to fall. I moved to Florida recently, and it doesn’t snow here, but the Christmas air is still crisp and fresh. Cars ride by with a freshly cut Christmas tree strapped to the top. Houses along the streets have thousands of bulbs beaming. One house in my neighborhood has projected a giant live countdown of the actual days, hours, minutes and seconds until Christmas. How can anyone not be happy during this time of year?
Now people have the big inflatables that are shaped like frosty, Santa, Rudolph, and every other character that is synonymous with the season; and then of course there’s usually one or two houses in the neighborhood that have some rendition of a nativity scene in the decoration display. This year I’ve counted three in our neighborhood. Years ago a church in my hometown did a live nativity for several days. It was a really big deal. Cars lined up and people drove up, parked, grabbed some hot chocolate and hung out with little baby Jesus. Here, I haven’t seen any signs or billboards or flyers, but there’s a church just down the street from my house that appears to be building a pretty elaborate set for a live nativity scene. They’ve been working on it for months and every day as I drive by I take note of their progress. They have the perfect location to host such an event. I have already rehearsed in my mind what the scene will look like with the cars lined up down the street and wrapping around the block; with the people crowding around and packing the property to get a glimpse of baby Jesus.
Everybody pours in to live in that moment all those years ago when Jesus was lying in a feeding trough with hay for a mattress and repurposed rags for a quilt. I think the magnetic power of the nativity is, in part, that the incarnation boils the love of God down to one of the most humble, vulnerable and joyous of all human experiences: the birth of a baby. There isn’t a soul on the planet who can’t marvel at the birth of a baby. Everybody loves babies. Even people who don’t like kids love babies.
But there’s something that’s missing from the innocent scene of the birth of baby Jesus. We stand there staring at the nativity, metaphorically blinded by the light shining from that mysterious star. We hear the angelic chorus and we are tempted to forget this one crucial detail. And that small, yet profoundly important detail is this:
This precious little baby boy was born for violence.
He was born to be the light of the world, the bread of life, living water, the great physician, the magnanimous miracle worker, a sagacious teacher and so much more. But beyond and before all of that, he was born for violence. He was indeed—born to die.
Even before he could walk he lived under threat of death. Herod issued a death-warrant for our Savior long before he even knew he was the Savior. And though Donald Trump may not have liked it, Jesus lived as a refugee in a foreign country when he was just a toddler, because the alternative would have been to meet an untimely and ill-fated end. While we employ every known strategy to stave off death, Jesus lived each day with eyes set and mind focused toward his death-day. His entire life centers around what would one day happen to him on Calvary.
He was born to die. He was born for violence.
A couple months ago I wrote a piece that drew some strong emotions. I talked about the oppressive predicament of African-Americans and how so much of it is meted out with violence—physical and systematic. In the piece, violence is intended literally, but also as a metaphor for the legacy and the cycle of trauma and subjugation at the hands of the dominant group. I’ve spent a great deal of this year reflecting on, as well as speaking and writing about, violence. In the recent months we have come face to face, over and over again with the terrifying, dehumanizing power of violence.
I was actually sitting in a board meeting talking to local church leaders about the need to have a clear security strategy at right about the same time that Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. These instances of violence have become so commonplace that we almost expect them as a part of the news cycle. Yet, we aren’t actually surprised, because violence is in the very foundation of our country.
We pried this land from the bloody hands of the brutalized Native Americans, who were here first. Then we bailed cotton on the bloody backs of my ancestors, who built this country into a money-grubbing juggernaut. We shed blood on the battlefields of the revolution to resist the rule of Britain. Then we shed blood on our soil again for the right to maintain the financial freedom action plan through the enslavement of African peoples. And if all of that wasn’t enough, we have spent the subsequent years dancing around the globe looking for poor people to exploit and disempower for economic gain.
Some we made into official territories and states; others we made into manufacturing sites to produce our wares at lowest possible price. Those who won’t comply we bomb into submission, or we simply supplant their leader and substitute one who will agree to our terms. We were built with and are still sustained by the currency of violence.
With all of this in mind, it is Isaiah’s prophecy that brings the vast and profound purpose and scope of Jesus’s life and death into view. It is Jesus whose life will clash with the broken government of his time and ours and demand that they be held accountable. Isaiah makes this clear when he says:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6, NIV)
Jesus, the omnipotent sovereign ruler will make it his responsibility to bring order to the government. He’s going to put the world on his shoulders like Atlas and make it behave. Jesus can make the violence stop.
Hundreds of years after Isaiah, the prophet Simeon met Jesus’ parents at the temple on the day they brought him to be dedicated to the Lord. Simeon, being full of the Holy Spirit spoke these harrowing words: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35 NIV).
It’s almost impossible to read that and not hear the insinuation that Jesus is headed toward a violent confrontation. Simeon promises that Jesus’ very life will mean the demise of many. There’s no way that anyone who would lose their power is going to go quietly and pass off the scene without a fight. This is a showdown. And just in case you’re not following the logic, he makes direct reference to a sword to make clear that Jesus’ violent exchanges will have a painful affect not only on his enemies, but also on himself and his own family.
When you look at the life of Jesus it is easy to see that it’s marked with pain. After all, “He was despised and rejected by people. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. He was despised like one from whom people turn their faces, and we didn’t consider him to be worth anything” (Is. 53:3 GWT).
He was born in substandard housing, raised in a ghetto, worked a low-income job, had to flee for his life on multiple occasions. He was betrayed by a close companion, then falsely accused and sentenced to die by an unjust court system. It is these (and other) elements of the life of Jesus that make some scholars say that the life Jesus was more like the African-American experience than we would like to think.
Jesus understood life in the Terrordome because he, too, was raised in the struggle. Yet his life, teachings, ministry, death and resurrection conveyed a very different and compelling response to the typical Terrordome brawl.
It’s right there in Luke 2. Just before we meet Simeon, when Luke tells the story of the night Christ was born, he says that the angels promised to the shepherds “peace and goodwill” to everyone who lives on the planet. Not only that, Isaiah’s prophecy also promises that Jesus will be the “prince of peace.” And for every poor, oppressed person who has ever lived, we have to admit that it’s not peace that we want, but rather justice. We want a balancing of the scales. We do not want a peace treaty. We want our forty acres and a mule. We want recompense. We want reparations. We want restitution. We want reconciliation (…well…kind of). We want things to be made right.
And it’s here that we need to clarify what this peace actually is.
But first let’s agree what peace is not. Peace is not assimilation. It’s not real peace if I have to “go along to get along.” It’s a not real peace if I have to pretend like we understand each other, we agree and everything is ok. That’s not peace.
Peace is harmony, security, national tranquility, safety, prosperity and ultimately salvation. All these qualities actually require equality, impartiality and for someone(s) to relinquish privilege. So true peace actually demands justice: no justice, no peace. Fortunately, Jesus brings peace, but he brings justice too. And we all will have to account for how we manifested his just and righteous will in our own lives and in our circle of influence. It is his impartiality and justice that breeds peace.
Howard Thurman, in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited, spoke about Jesus as the model for creative protest and resistance against oppressive powers. Thurman argues that Jesus was not a Sadducee, having succumbed to oppression by way of assimilation. Nor did he harbor a brooding silent hatred of the dominant group as did the Pharisee. He was not brutally violent as were the Zealots. Rather his life was a testament that fear, hypocrisy and hatred must not seize our hearts. None of these lead to real peace. These violent enemies will rob us of community, civility and compassion. If we refuse to let fear, hypocrisy and hatred imprison and enslave us in an endless cycle of violence, then we can carefully work towards peace.
Maybe that’s why baby Jesus is so powerful. Babies have the power to melt the hearts of the toughest tough guys. Everybody loves babies.
As for Simeon’s sword, perhaps first thing to be pierced and cut is my own heart. Maybe in order to stem the tide of violence and make peace on earth, he must first give me peace within. Maybe God gave us Jesus as a subversive kind of protest to really get at the heart of our violence. Maybe Jesus is the sleeper cell of heaven to help us learn to love and serve each other, as painful as it may be.
I love Christmas. I’m looking forward to that live nativity scene down the street. I’m going stand outside and watch those folks pretend to be the family of Jesus. And while I watch them pretend to be the family of Jesus, I’ll renew my commitment to being the real family of Jesus; promoting peace wherever I go. I’ll pray for real peace; freedom from hypocrisy, fear and hatred. I’ll ask him to teach me how to love in the face of selfishness and greed, so that I can serve those in need while the world is grasping for more. I‘ll ask him to teach me to stand firm in the face of bigotry and demonstrate grace and compassion. This is really painful. My heart is bleeding. And it’s all because of a little baby.