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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Christmas Is NOT Cute
distributed 12/20/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Lorna Lynn and Harold Palevsky of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The church that I attend in Denver had its Christmas Pageant last Sunday. The character of Herod was one of the highlights.

The annual show is billed as a "no rehearsal, do it yourself" pageant. Those who show up that morning -- kids and adults -- can claim a part, maybe don a costume, and do their best to follow a script. The narrator/stage manager tries to keep things vaguely in control.

Herod this year was played by a woman in her late 60s. She had little advance warning of her role, so there wasn't any serious preparation. The script gave her only a few lines to speak. But somehow, in just a few moments, she managed to convey a depth of emotion fitting for that corrupt ruler. She exuded fear and anger, with a ruthless style. Several folk in the congregation booed and hissed when she finished.

After the pageant, another woman in the congregation voiced her appreciation for this retelling of the Christmas events, saying, "I'd forgotten how radical this story really is."

The dominant culture -- and, to be honest, many churches -- wants us to think of Christmas as cute or comforting. When we look back at these short passages from the Bible with an openness to eco-justice insights, though, we find that God's call to the radical vision of shalom is at the heart of the stories.

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Our pageant -- like those in most churches -- jumbles together the birth narratives from Luke and Matthew. Luke gives us the stable and shepherds and the choirs of angels. Matthew gives us the magi with their gifts and Herod who slaughters the innocents.

Matthew, for me, says something essential about the Christmas world -- way back then, and now. It is a world of brokenness and violence, where ruthless self-interest is all too evident. It is a world in desperate need of love, grace and God's shalom.

If we were not in such need, if "business as usual" was doing just fine, then there would be no point in the incarnation. Christmas, as the starting point for this distinctive incarnation of God, is necessary because the world was, and is, a mess. The good news of the season starts with the recognition that everything is not all right.

It is not hard to catalogue evidence of the world's brokenness. The COP25 climate talks in Madrid just ended in what amounts to failure, even as the reality of climate crisis is irrefutable. The US (as you may have heard) is split down the middle by the impeachment of our President. The oceans are choking in plastic, and PFAS "forever chemicals" are accumulating in waterways and through the food chain. Species extinction is accelerating. While stark global poverty is declining, economic inequality is increasing, both within countries and between them, as a few obscenely rich individuals each have more wealth than entire nations. Violent nationalism and racism are on the rise. I'm sure you can add to the list. Just as in Matthew's story, Herod and the empire are all around us.

Because the world is a mess, we need the imaginative and hopeful story that comes from Luke as a complement to Matthew's account. There are two important take-aways from Luke that I've named often through the years, and that bear repeating.

Luke gives us the astonishing song of Mary called the Magnificat (1:46-55). It is a poem of humility and praise, which keeps the focus on God's intentions for creation -- if we read it correctly. (Watch out for misplaced emphasis. She sings, "My soul magnifies the LORD!", not "MY soul magnifies the Lord.")

Mary's song is a bold assertion of prophetic imagination, of how God's realm completely transforms the world. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. The hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. Matthew shows us the brutality of Herod's power, and Mary tells us that such power will be destroyed. (Two years ago, I pointed to the "Me Too" movement as a taste of what such an upending of power looks like.)

A second and related aspect of Luke's narrative -- which probably will be named by many preachers in the coming week -- is that the stable is filled with the powerless and the marginalized. Mary's song speaks of the lowly being lifted up, and we get a glimpse of that in the scene of Christmas night.

This most holy event -- which we proclaim as the unprecedented incarnation of God -- happens through an unmarried pregnant teen, in a backwater town, witnessed by shepherds at the absolute bottom of the social ladder, and completely under the radar of the political and religious authorities. It isn't that the shepherds take over the throne of Herod to become a new pool of tyrants. The shepherds -- and the beloved critters at the manger that Luke actually never mentions -- are in on the leading edge of God's inbreaking realm.

That Christmas stable is compelling because it isn't unique. It introduces us to a theme that will be persistent in the life of Jesus, and in the best of the Christian church. Eight years ago, I wrote:

If you want a respectable religion -- one that is deferential to wealth and power, one that looks to the mainstream commentators for a reassuring analysis of the headlines, one that helps us fit in comfortably with polite society -- then the Christianity of the manger and the cross isn't it. The Jesus who washes filthy feet as a model of leadership, who uses poor women and kind Samaritans as good examples, embodies a holiness that challenges the conventional wisdom about what is valuable and righteous.

The stories that we read in this Christmas season proclaim a disquieting truth about God's purposes. God does not work through the established channels to transform the world. It is the poor and the marginalized who bring the good news. And the good news that they bring is a threat to the powerful and the pretentious.

The story of Christmas begins under the thumb of Herod and the oppressive rule of the Roman empire. It begins with Mary's proclamation of justice and transformation. It takes shape in a stable, embodying God's preference for the poor and the outcast. The story continues through the life and ministry of Jesus, who was such a threat to the social and political order that they had to kill him. And, the Christian church proclaims, the story of God's transformative love and power still continues.

The dominant culture want us to think of Christmas as cute or comforting. But that little baby asleep in the hay brings an active, revolutionary peace that opposes all hatred, violence and exploitation, a peace that encompasses all creation.

Ponder that joyous truth during the coming days of Christmas.

I began today's Notes with a scene from my home church, Washington Park United Church of Christ, in Denver. It is a remarkable, creative congregation with a passion for eco-justice. The church is now in a period of interim ministry, and will begin the active search for a new pastor in a few months. If you know of clergy who might thrive in such a setting, please encourage them to apply.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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