(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 24, 2022)
We get things wrong. This is to be expected. Because the problem with the church, the global body of Jesus followers, is that, like the larger world, it’s filled with people.
We’re not always our brother’s, or sister’s, keeper. We don’t always give a cup of cool water to the thirsty. A home to the homeless. We’re not always peacemakers. Not always great image bearers. Not Jesus’ best ambassadors.
American politics, which can dominate the news, seems like a circus where Christ’s name is conveniently tossed around. Not that people of faith, any faith, shouldn’t enter public life. They should.
But followers of “The Way,” that is Jesus followers, or “Christians,” (meaning “little anointed ones,” as they were pejoratively called in ancient Rome when they were thrown to lions for sport) have, over the centuries, helped their communities best from a position of weakness, not power.
In broader culture it’s also easy for people to get things wrong. One myth is that Christianity is essentially a white, Eurocentric faith. True, Christianity grew from the ancient Middle East into the larger Roman empire. True, also, Jesus has been depicted, sometimes for artistic reasons, with skin lighter than a typical man from ancient Israel.
On the other hand, many ethnic groups have created iconography and meaningful images of Jesus in their own likeness, with very dark skin and their own particular racial features. Not because anyone believes Christ was born in, say, Japan. But because the joy of Christmas and its universal message of “Emmanuel, God with us,” can be experienced by any race or people group.
In our own home at Christmas we have Nativity carvings from East Africa which, naturally, reflect life and artistic motifs from that region. And while in western Europe and North America it’s currently in decline, Christianity is on the move in large swaths around the world.
In 1900, Africa had about 10 million Jesus followers. Now there are, incredibly, about 600 million. Latin America, South America and parts of Asia have similar make-ups. China, where Mao’s Cultural Revolution tried to shackle and leave the Christian God as a historic footnote, had four million Christians in 1949 when atheist Communist rule began. Now, including China’s underground church, there are about 50 million.
Interestingly, while Jesus followers spread throughout the ancient Roman world, thousands were killed, often horribly, because they refused to worship Rome’s gods. But in the 20th century more people were martyred globally for Christ than in all other centuries combined. All the more mystery, then, that the larger world is now somehow Christ’s manger.
Of course, the world is half a mess. Ever since Eden. Now we live with fears about not only war or disease, but survival of the planet itself. Then the everyday worries about money and relationships and health and whatever other wolf may prowl at your particular door.
But into this messy place, even into anyone’s untidy private fears and anxieties and regrets – and hopes – the stab of Christmas light still shines. Especially in the cold darkness when you feel most alone. “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you. I’m on your side.” The distinct message echoes from that first Christmas 2,000 years ago.
That’s the history-altering event that’s nothing like, say, the magazine cover at the supermarket checkout showing a shmaltzy Nativity like it’s from some Hallmark movie. Rather, it’s the event from ancient Palestine when, with a supporting cast, a brave teenage girl in the outback of Rome’s empire gave birth in a simple cave while darkness raged nearby.
So for all that we may get wrong at this time of year, or any time of any year, for all that you, or I, may get wrong about Christmas, or our ourselves, or others, this is what’s right: the word that became flesh, Jesus the God-Man, is full of life and healing and peace and goodwill toward humanity. It seems like he just won’t leave. Thankfully.