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The political meaning of Christmas

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Amid all the sentimentality, noise and gift-giving that Christmas entails, what does it mean politically? Can it help us to bring genuine good into our world? Does it have meaning for our civic discourse?

No gospel writer gives as much space to the story of the birth of Jesus as the physician Luke. In a wonderful passage he has Mary exclaiming that the God who has given her this child "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 sent the rich away empty."

It is Luke who also tells us that it was a registration for taxation purposes, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, that sent the parents Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and, since the roadhouses were filled, they found shelter in a stable. It was there, in a manger, the child was born. The announcement of the birth to a band of shepherds uses striking language: "Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord... Glory to God in the highest and peace to men on whom his favour rests."

One of the most striking aspects of the Christian story is the claim Jesus never sought power in the sense that most great leaders -- even religious leaders -- have done. He was born in the humblest of circumstances and never aspired to power. At the very beginning of his ministry we are told that he went into the desert and faced the temptation to claim such power. But he resolutely rejected it. When he was about to be arrested before his crucifixion, some of his disciples wanted to respond by use of force -- again, he rejected it. He went to his crucifixion meekly, willingly. What is the meaning of this?

Christians have understood the Scriptures to be saying that this is God's way of dealing with the brokenness, the warp in human behaviour. It is not with laws or legislation, but with a transformation of the heart. When the Scriptures want to show us how Jesus' followers are to live, it does it not by creating a set of laws and regulations, but by naming attitudes. Jesus said, it is from the heart that good or evil flow. So, the Apostle Paul stated that the fruit of the Spirit of Christ in us is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

Christianity is entirely comfortable with a secular government, if that means all religions are treated fairly and equally, are allowed to witness for their truth claims and argue for those things that will contribute to the public good, just as anyone else can. Anyone who reads history knows, of course, that this is not how Christians have always behaved. But the separation between the role of the church and that of the government has been there from the beginning. Jesus told those who asked him about paying taxes, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

Luke also has Jesus making a powerful statement about his mission when he begins his public ministry. In the synagogue in Nazareth, he opens the Hebrew scriptures to the letter of the prophet Isaiah and reads: "The Spirit of the Lord ... has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed." Then he adds, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

The early church built its life around these words of Jesus. Its early followers did not join their nation's armies. It was when I read the story of Andre and Magda Trocme and how their village of Le Chambon in central France saved the lives of 3,500 Jews during the Second World War that I first really grasped that a way of peace is the legacy of all Christians, even for those who no longer know it. Furthermore, the Christian gospel put everyone onto a level playing field. Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In one of his most tender letters, written to a friend Philemon, Paul urges the man to take back a runaway slave, "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a brother."

This was the inspiration for the words in O Holy Night, by de Roquemaure, which never fail to move me: "Truly he taught us to love one another,/ His law is love and his gospel is peace./Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, /And in his name all oppression shall cease."

Baylor University's Rodney Stark writes that when Christianity began "as much as half the population was in bondage. But by the seventh century, Christianity had become the only major world religion to formulate specific theological opposition to slavery." By the 11th century the church had expelled slavery from Europe. When slavery reappeared in the new world, Stark writes, "all the eventual abolition movements were of religious origins."

A church firmly rooted in the gospel of Christ will always want to live by such ideals. Everything that has to do with birth, marriage and death will be important to it. How we treat one another, how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, how we run our businesses, what we aspire to, the respect we show for the structures of society (even for those with which we may disagree), and the care we show for the creation -- all of these are influenced by our faith in the one born as the Christ, God with us.

Does Christmas have a political meaning? Indeed, it does. And can we once again join the angel chorus and say, "Glory to God in the highest?" I would like to believe we can.

Harold Jantz was the founding editor of ChristianWeek, published locally, and earlier the editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 A15

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