BY REV. TODD THOMASON — ’Tis the season to be jolly, or so the carol goes. In reality, though, December often winds up being the season to fly into a tizzy, as my mother would say. Fa la la la la, la la la AAUGH!
There are lights to put up and lists to check off and presents to wrap and schedules to coordinate and endless details (among other things) to debate. Will we have ham or turkey – or both – for Christmas dinner? Will we spend the day with your parents, my parents – or neither? Do we start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving or after – and will the Mannheim Steamroller be allowed? Do we say “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” – and whom will we offend regardless of what we decide?
In my house, some of the biggest fights I’ve had to referee have been rows between my twin 4-year-old daughters over who gets to play with which pieces of their nativity set. I’ve probably put Baby Jesus in time-out more this past week than Mary ever did, merely to ensure his survival.
Many of these seasonal squabbles come down to matters of personal taste and nothing more. But others are symptomatic of the deeper divisions that exist within our society. As the recent national election revealed, we the people of these United States remain rather divided in our ideologies and priorities beneath the star of Christmas. A month after the electoral dust has settled, partisan niceties are already beginning to fade and well-worn battle lines are receiving fresh coats of paint.
As a Christian, and especially a pastor, the frantic, fractured state of things in our lives and in our nation grieves me. But the story of Christmas is the very thing that gives me hope. Whether you see this story as foundational to your faith, as I do, or a mere fanciful tale on par with Santa Claus, I pray it will speak hope to you as well.
The story of Jesus’ birth, at its core, is a story of unity in the face of deep division. Indeed, Jesus was born into a world as divided as ours, if not more so. The Roman Empire of the early first century was a volatile blend of citizens and non-citizens, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons. Probably no surprise, then, that it frequently erupted in war and revolt. Bethlehem, in the West Bank, occupies a swath of land that has been seized, traded, and manipulated by rival Middle Eastern powers for millennia.
Yet, in that time and in that place, we read of a special child of royal lineage, born not in a palace but in a stable, and surrounded by a retinue of lowly shepherds and heavenly angels – a birth foretold by the prophets of Israel that also attracts the attention of pagan priests from Persia. Heaven and earth, rich and poor, humans and animals are all brought together on that silent, holy night.
I find it a blessed coincidence that purple is both the liturgical color of Advent, the holy season of preparation leading up to Christmas, and the true color of the electoral map, as Mark Newman of the University of Michigan has demonstrated.
We shouldn’t be surprised, really. As human beings, our basic wants, needs, and desires are essentially the same: health, prosperity, safety, and opportunity for ourselves and those whom we love. Our differences arise primarily out of disparate opinions about how to achieve those wants, needs, and desires. But Christmas is a reminder that we are not necessarily as divided as we appear – and we certainly do not have to be.
My daughters reminded me of this recently. After one of their nativity-set tantrums resulted in the set being put in time-out, they sat down and decided to draw a nativity set of their own. They each drew part of it on pieces of paper and then put it all together. When it was complete, they had Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, four sheep, three kings, an assortment of camels, a donkey, an angel – and a flamingo – all gathered to celebrate the baby Jesus.
In the words of Jesus, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Merry Christmas. And Happy Holidays!
Rev. Todd Thomason is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville.