This December 25 holiday hits differently for almost everyone this year. There were fewer cars leaving our multi-cultural neighborhood last night to attend midnight or other night-before-the-thing services. There are also fewer homes with lines of cars parked out front with grandchildren running obliviously in the cold. Not that everyone followed CDC guidelines to stay home and reduce the explosion of virus cases we’re currently experiencing. There were still long lines at the grocery (I’m told, I didn’t experience). There were still millions of people going through airports. Interstate traffic, according to AAA, is off by some 34 million travelers, but that still puts 84.5 million on the roads this weekend. Still, roughly 75 percent of Americans are curtailing their holiday celebrations this year and around the world, there are places where those numbers are significantly higher.
Then, there are those who remain completely tone-deaf, such as whoever put together and approved this season’s ads for GMC trucks. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here, let me show you:
That commercial, along with another that uses the truck to “best” the gift of a puppy, has been airing since late November and as horribly unfeeling and unrealistic as they are, they remind us of something very important: December 25 has never been about the incarnation of deity. This is a usurped pagan holiday meant to celebrate the winter solstice (which fell on December 25 in the Julian calendar). Romans gave gifts as a way of appeasing the god Saturn, decorated their homes with garlands of evergreen, wore special clothes, hosted feasts, burned colorful candles, and on the last day of the week-long celebration, gave each other small figurines, an act that some think was a symbolic holdover from the days when human sacrifice was the norm.
Saturnalia celebrations were loud, raucous, non-stop, and inclusive. Slaves not only didn’t work but in many cases, especially by the time of Augustus, they sat at the head of the table while the host served them first. The holiday was so popular that the young Christian church, burgeoning with new political power, decided it was easier to assign Christian symbolism to the various elements and make the holiday about the birth of a child, something that hadn’t been on the church’s calendar before that decision came down.
Given that history, it really is not the least bit surprising that we’ve returned to a mid-winter holiday full of excess, with food and gifts and decorations whose primary difference is the advantage that comes with electric lights, gas stoves, and running water. What’s interesting is that this fervent post-1960 insistence on “keeping Christ in Christmas,” has had the greater effect of stripping away some of the humanity that was present in the original event. Instead of expanding our celebrations as the Romans did, we close ranks. We focus on family, primarily the parts of the family that play by whatever rules the patriarchs established. We exclude those who are different, those whose lifestyles we don’t understand, those who are unwashed, those whose level of need causes us to feel guilty about our level of excess.
I am always bothered by sentences that include the phrase, “I deserve,” or even worse, “my kids deserve,” making children bear the weight of our personal greed and selfishness. Do we, really, deserve anything? Does our behavior this year, the refusal to stay quarantined, or wear a mask, or avoid large gatherings (especially of a religious nature), the derisive nature of yet another petulant political season, the defense of wealth hoarding, the shameless declaration that those whose work is mostly menial with wages below the poverty level are now “essential workers,” the dismissal of the value of lives of color, does all that do anything except, most likely, place significant numbers of us on Santa’s naughty list?
There are some interesting scriptures to be read this morning. The first comes from Isaiah, chapter 7, where the prophet makes an interesting announcement:
Hear now, O house of David!
Is it not enough to try the patience of men?
Will you try the patience of my God as well?
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son,
and will call Him Immanuel.
A couple of things stand out to me. First, the pronouncement isn’t based on Isaiah’s deity being pleased. His incarnation isn’t a reward, he’s coming to fix what we’ve broken. The prophet is pissed. He’s done with humanity and isn’t all that sure about deity, either, but he’s not quite to the point of completely writing off either one. The prophecy of Messiah is one born in our need for something better, something we are unable to attain on our own because of the wretched miserableness of being human.
Second, that name, Immanuel, is of interesting construction, and please excuse my pedantic diversion for a moment, but it’s not a common title or name. The origin is the words “im” and “el” with the pronominal suffix inserted in the middle. Im = with. El = god. This makes the most literal translation “with us, god,” but given the insistence of placing deity first, we are more comfortable saying “god with us.” Does either matter? Only to the extent we fail to understand the implications.
Earlier this week, Queens pastor Rich Villodas wrote:
Not, God with those who agree with me.
Not, God with my political party.
Not, God with denomination.
Not, God with those who I like.
In declaring the title of this child born to a virgin, Isaiah is making a statement that deity exceeds the boundaries of human social distinctions. If god is going to go to all this trouble, it’s not for any “chosen people,” but all of humanity, those who believe and those who don’t; those who agree and those who don’t; those who embrace tradition and those who don’t; those who struggle to survive and those who don’t; those who have a lot to give and those who don’t.
Including “those who don’t” is one of the strongest statements made in all of scripture because without that pronominal suffix “us,” religion becomes nothing more than another closed-door social club full of elitists. Isaiah spoke directly to a generation that had taken the concept of “God’s chosen people” to the levels of extreme narcissism. By announcing the name of the incarnate deity as Immanuel, he lets them know that the days of exclusivity are done. The deity is open and available to everyone. This was such a novel idea that the prophet had reason to fear for his life.
We’re still not all onboard with the entire concept of inclusivity, despite it being at the forefront of what many profess to believe. The other scripture being read a lot this morning is Luke 1:45-54. For those who don’t have the passage memorized, it goes like this:
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Regarding this passage, writer Sharifa Stevens said this week:
“Thinking about how quickly Mary (in her brown, burgeoning body) would be silenced, ostracized, and defamed by modern-day religious leaders for creating and proclaiming the Magnificat.”
Let’s take that a step further. Mary, in her brown, burgeoning body, did not make this daring statement out loud until after everything else had happened. By the time she recounts the events for Luke’s transcription, a movement was beginning, and, being a woman of some age by that point, she did not face the risk and ridicule that would have been immediate had she voiced such thoughts as a young, pregnant teen. There are some strong statements that would not have set any better than as they do now. Consider:
He brings down rulers and lifts up the humble.
He feeds the hungry, something we have argued about all year, and sends the rich away empty.
He socially distances those who are proud and boastful.
The incarnate deity is, in contemporary secular terms, a progressive anti-fascist community organizer wrapped in a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, born in a homeless shelter to a young girl dating a significantly older guy, on the run from government agents. This deity did not come so that you can have two $50,000 pickup trucks in your driveway. This deity’s whole purpose is to demonstrate humility, compassion, inclusivity, generosity, and equality. He was anti-establishment before inhabiting Mary’s body. Everything he did that’s recorded centers around normalizing qualities now either denigrated or ignored by those who claim his name.
Lying in bed last night, I was awakened by the sound of one of the cats knocking over a large box. Within those brief moments of consciousness, I heard the distant pealing of bells from a church announcing the time for midnight services. My mind, being it’s most analytical when exhausted, started thinking of the difference between bells ringing and bells tolling. Yes, it makes a difference.
Deborah Lubken, in a delightfully detailed article, explains:
“In the first capacity, ringing and tolling commanded public attention and conveyed messages, which listeners interpreted with reference to other sources of information. In the second capacity, these methods represented approval or dissent on multiple levels. A ringing bell could express the audible assent of a community’s inhabitants; the voice of organizers, indicating how listeners should think and feel; and the consent of religious and municipal authorities, who controlled access to bells and regulated their use. Although representations were sometimes contested, because bells commanded attention and represented authority, ringing and tolling lent legitimacy to both political demonstrations and accounts that circulated in print.”
Tolling was for marking the time and specific occasions related to time. They told people when to wake up, go to work, and go to church. They rang at weddings and tolled at funerals. Multiple bells ringing was almost always good news. A lone, single bell was a call to solemnity.
The arrival of deity incarnate is a bell tone across the ages announcing a call to leave nationalistic exceptionalism behind and embracing people across every form of border and separation. In a year where we’ve heard more tolling than we remember, the ringing of a bell embracing those who are poor, homeless, struggling, infected, marginalized, discriminated against, misidentified, ignored, and discarded should be one to which we all flock, in remote fashion of course. Unfortunately, that’s rarely what happens. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured the emotion well, writing in 1863.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Longfellow eventually resolved his morose feeling, though it comes across a bit forced in the final verse. Most of us find ourselves having to end here. This is our reality. The bells toll, mockingly reminding us that what we are celebrating is a date on the calendar, not the promise of change embodied in a Jewish baby. If we were genuinely as thrilled as we pretend with what that child taught, would we not stay home, socially distanced, rather than flooding megachurches and singing at volumes even deities protest? If we unwrapped the message of the incarnate one with the fervor we give to brightly wrapped presents bearing our name, would we hesitate at all to wear a mask, get in line for a vaccine, or wash our hands? If we’re going to believe that Immanuel arrived in the middle of the night out in a barn in the middle of nowhere, why do we not also believe that the rich should be taxed, that everyone deserves to vote, that no human is illegal, that health care, food, and shelter are basic human rights, that sex workers are as deserving (perhaps more) of dignity as are politicians, that love is not gender-specific, and that racism is always wrong?
Rich Villodas, again, wrote earlier this week:
The gospel writers who document Jesus’ genealogy include women who were sexually exploited and taken advantage of.
Jesus doesn’t distance himself from their stories. He joins his life to theirs and with all women who have been treated similarly.”
I’m not opposed to a mid-winter celebration with lights and tinsel and evergreen and overindulgence in all things sweet. The holiday is fun and to the limited extent that it sparks in a few feelings of generosity and compassion, that is helpful. When my 22-year-old expresses joy at the discovery of their penguin onesie wrapped in a ceremonial Amazon bag, my heart leaps knowing that I’ve given them something they’ll enjoy and appreciate. Winter needs a moment where we take a break.
If we dare to attach any theological significance to the season, though, we are nothing less than the grossest of hypocrites if we do not simultaneously, and at length throughout the year, embrace the revolution of inclusion and equality that began in a manger somewhere around Bethlehem. If we do not fight for, demand, and through every means possible make provision for peace on earth, goodwill to men, then the Magnificat is a meaningless piece of poetry and Isaiah was just another grumpy old man.
2020 has been a year of change, a year upsetting norms and establishing difficult protocols. Perhaps that can be the fuel for making 2021 the year when, once we’re all vaccinated, we can embrace the promise of Immanuel.
Peace be with you.