One of the encouragements that I give to my students is to read as widely as they can. If they are more conservative, I challenge them to read the work of people they consider liberal. If they are liberals, I encourage them to read more conservative articles and books. When I was young, my father (who only completed three grades of school) told me that I will never be too smart to learn from people who do not have as much book knowledge as me. I also learned about reading widely from my doctoral adviser, who pushed me to examine as many documents as possible before starting my dissertation. It is important to read and listen to people whose views don’t look like yours.
This past week, I read an article by Sarah Thebarge entitled “Why Christmas Should be Cancelled This Year.” She listed about 19 reasons why we should not celebrate Christmas, decrying the Christians who invoke the name of Jesus and then discriminate against others, support the death penalty, and refuse to help the poor and the immigrant. She wrote that Jesus was an immigrant born in an occupied land and that he was rejected because of his brown skin. The article concluded with this: “Christmas should be cancelled until we’re actually ready to welcome Jesus into our homes, our thinking, our voting, our actions, our words, our lives…until we’re ready to recognize Jesus in the eyes of everyone. Especially the ‘least of these.’”
I found myself agreeing with much of what this author wrote but the more I agreed, the more I disagreed. There is more to this story. In fact, the Christmas narrative itself struggles with the laws and cultural expectations that were in place at that time. At the annunciation, the angel explains to Mary that the birth of the savior will defy every rule of that time about marriage and parenthood, since the baby will be born to a virgin. Another angel is sent to Joseph; he is ready to leave his fiancé because she broke the laws of betrothal by being pregnant. But it is obedience to the Roman laws of taxation that brought Mary and Joseph exactly where they needed to be—Bethlehem, the place prophesied by Micah. It is true that the angel tells them to flee the government and run to Egypt, but before they do that, they manage to bring Jesus to the Temple right under Herod’s nose and have their son circumcised on the eighth day, as prescribed in the law of Moses.
God is always present in our ordinary, violent, messed up world. People who are conservative in their politics will insist that our God is a god of laws and breaking the rules means you cannot follow Christ. On the other hand, people who are more liberal will say that the rules have no meaning and Christ is only love, mercy, and compassion. But God is always, confoundingly, both justice and mercy. Jesus came to earth to be mistreated and persecuted, but he still came to fulfill the law and everything that the prophets said would come to pass. Throughout the history of the world, there has been evil in the world and we have treated people badly. If we feel like the world is darker than ever, perhaps that is the best reason to celebrate the birth of Christ—the one who came into the world to suffer and be persecuted and to redeem us all and fulfill God’s plan for his life.