What do we expect of the babe in the manger?

It is Christmas Day. The great day for which we have been waiting.

But, what, exactly, is the subject of our waiting?

In secular terms, the answer is obvious and exciting. The lights, the tree, the presents, family (even if afar, in this year of pandemic), and the food. I love it all.

But, what is the real meaning of the religious feast day behind all this festive overeating and overspending?

If we even bother to think about the true meaning of this day, we tend to start and stop our thoughts at the manger, and the birth of a Savior who promises salvation at the end of this life.

And, for Christians, that is an appropriate starting point. Christ was born to lift us from death and sin. And for that, we should certainly offer praise and thanks on this day.

But, all-too-often, our religious thought on this feast day (if we pause to give it any faithful thought) focuses entirely on the promise it brings for the next life, and has little impact on this life — on how we live and love, before we die.

So, what do we expect of this fragile, definitely-not-white baby we celebrate on this day? What does the birth of our King mean for us as Christians?

The unfortunate answer, I think, is that we expect a king who will affirm our preconceptions and our entitled position in this world. If our society, its actions and the words of megachurch pastors are any indication, we want a king of power and might. We want a king who will approve of our wars, our systemic poverty, racial injustice and misogyny. We expect a king who will affirm millennia of white, male dominance at the expense of all others.

What a strange expectation of a brown, refugee child, born into poverty, soon fleeing with his family in the face of the powerful, who would kill him for fear of his true power.

If we want to know what to expect of this fragile babe whose birth we celebrate this day, we need look no further than the words of his mother, in her Magnificat, from Luke 1: “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.”

The prophet Isaiah told us much earlier what to expect of this child, and what we must expect of ourselves, if we are to follow him: “To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

Or, perhaps we could listen to the babe himself, as an adult: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is not a promise of comfort for the powerful and privileged. No, the babe in the manger offers a harsh warning to us, in our power and privilege — the threat of “’the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”

So the next time you think or utter, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” you are absolutely correct. But, please remember, the path of that fragile, poor child, upends our society as we know it. He brings the promise — and calls us to work toward — a new world, seen with new eyes.

Do we actually intend to follow this child, whose birth we celebrate with such excess and extravagance? If we do, then we must commit ourselves to creating a society that feeds the hungry, lifts up the humble, clothes and comforts the poor, invites in the stranger, and looks after the sick and prisoners.

To do anything less is, at best, to ignore the true meaning of this day, and of the child it celebrates. At worst, we make a mockery of God, and pervert the message of his Son to affirm our own cruelty, greed and prejudice. And that is a path that, in the end, will be neither merry nor bright.

Merry Christmas — and may we all be merry in the true meaning and promise of this day.

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