When you ponder what Christmas celebrates, the holiday's claim is staggering.
N.T. Wright, the widely read biblical scholar and retired Anglican bishop, captures its import by noting that the Gospels do not cast Jesus as "parachuting down from a great height to dispense solutions to all problems nor zapping everything into shape like some kind of Superman."
Rather, Wright observes in his book "Simply Good News," Christ is shown as "living in the mess and muddle of a very difficult part of the world at an especially difficult moment in its history and absorbing the pain and the shame of it all within his own life, within his own body."
Everything about the Christmas account portrays a world turned upside down. A new king heralded as the Son of God comes into the world quite inauspiciously, born in a manger surrounded by farm animals as part of a working-class family. This is a radical inversion of how God or gods were typically understood at the time: mighty and all-powerful beings, lording it over often hapless humans. The Christmas story is about God becoming one of us, and a particularly humble member of our company at that.
This is why Christmas has always been a fundamentally subversive holiday, and why Christianity, an organic outgrowth of prophetic Judaism, has always been at root a radical faith.
The joy of the day and the season isn't felt only by those who hold the theological conviction that Jesus came to save the world from sin. It is also thrilling to the sorts of people whom the buoyantly radical folk singer Woody Guthrie described as his inspiration and primary audience — those casually dismissed as "born to lose."
"I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world," Guthrie said of his people, "and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."
Christmas is the day for those who have been knocked for a dozen loops. Its good tidings are that the bad tidings about them are wrong. This is their world, too.
As an unabashed fan of virtually every schmaltzy Christmas television moment, I have long appreciated how popular culture's instincts about what the day represents are, perhaps surprisingly, fully in keeping with the Gospel's insurrectionary implications.
This is true despite the commercialization of the holiday and despite efforts to politicize the question of who should say "Merry Christmas" to whom. (I confess to finding it decidedly un-Christian to insist on aggressively pushing Christmas greetings onto those whose own religious commitments are different from mine.)
"It's a Wonderful Life" is all about George Bailey triumphing over Mr. Potter. The unassuming Building-and-Loan guy beats the money-grubbing banker who doesn't care a whit about his community. The people in the town whom Mr. Potter sees as losers rescue the man who wants them to win.
The Grinch believes that the dear people of Whoville could have their Christmas ruined if only he hauled away all the stuff they expect as gifts. But Whoville is about love, not stuff, and even the Grinch's heart has to respond. The Rudolph story lifts up the misfits over the conformists. In "Love Actually," a British prime minister risks it all for his feelings toward a low-level staffer of modest origins. Choosing love over status is as Christmas as it gets.
In preparation for the commemoration of Christ's birth, the Roman Catholic calendar of readings for the Third Sunday of Advent this year included this passage from the 61st chapter of Isaiah:
He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor
To heal the broken-hearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners
You don't have to be Jewish to experience the liberating message of the Exodus story. And you don't have to be a Christian to feel elation over the idea that a fallen world can be redeemed. The poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and the prisoners do not have to be left to their fate and their suffering. Every year at this time, we are called to renew our hope that cold indifference and smug complacency can be overcome by a humble and gentle love powerful enough to inspire wise men, shepherds and even angels.