“I don’t know if you believe in Christmas,
or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree.
But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for you to come and celebrate with me.
And if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for peace to last throughout the coming year.”
– A Christmas Wish, John Denver and Kermit the Frog
Merry Christmas, for those of you who celebrate it! And as Kermit sings, even if you don’t, I wish you peace and love. And so in the spirit of the holiday, today’s entry is about how my faith inspires my passion for social justice, which drives so much of this blog.
As an American Christian with Protestant roots, it’s sometimes easy for Christmas to get overlooked for Easter. The evangelical church in particular puts a much heavier theological emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus than on his birth. The conventional evangelical perspective (illustrated in the “bridge illustration”), often states that God sent His only Son to die for humans. But as I’ve moved to a more multi-denominational perspective, I’ve started valuing the incarnation more. Currently, my faith reflects a form of the Eastern Orthodox perspective, which has a much stronger focus on the birth and life of Jesus. I take the perspective that God came down in the form of Christ to bring salvation to all of creation, not just humans. I also believe that while the resurrection completed this process, it truly began with his birth, the incarnation.
In some ways, the image of God choosing to become vulnerable and human is more powerful to me than Christ dying on the cross. While one leads to the other, the first seems like a greater leap of faith. After all, God was entrusting a human to take care of him! And not a powerful, privileged human, for that matter. A young, inexperienced, unmarried woman, who was great in faith but otherwise humble.
This reversing of roles, this voluntarily stepping down into the mess of the world is what I take from the most from the Christmas story. Even before Jesus is born, Mary reflects upon it in the Magnificat, the song she sings to her cousin Elizabeth and one of my favorite parts of the story.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Her song reflects to me not the world as it was then, nor as it is now. But to me, it’s an image of what the world can be now that Christ has entered it, growing inside of her. It’s a world where God hasn’t come to bless powerful institutions and wealthy kings. It’s a world where he loves even the most destitute, a theme seen over and over again in Jesus’s ministry. (This particular aspect is terribly well-summarized in the passage I posted last year – Anne Lamott’s My Advent Adventure). Perhaps most importantly, it’s a world where we are called to do the same. To me, it’s a promise – a promise that if we work towards justice, peace, respect, and love for all, that God will transform us. And because we are transformed, the world will be as well.
This attitude is reflected in one of my favorite non-Biblical passages, St. Francis’s prayer. Besides being an advocate for the natural world, St. Francis was supposedly quite well-off and gave it all away to serve the poor. While the prayer probably wasn’t written by him – the furthest it can be traced back is 1912 – I do believe it’s very much in the spirit of his ministry. I first learned it volunteering at H.O.M.E., an Emmaus social justice ministry with the mission to “serve first those who suffer most.”
Father, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
While I often don’t succeed in it, that’s what I try to move towards every day of my life. Building peace is an active form of rebellion against the greed, injustice, and pain in our world (something these folks know). I know I’ve been transformed as a result. More importantly, I hope that because my transformation, the world has moved, even if just a little, closer to Mary’s vision of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.
To me, the meaning of Christmas is to remember the day that the most powerful being in the universe came to earth as a helpless baby, and everything changed.