Columnist Don Robinson revisits ideas that underlie Christmas

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Published: 12/27/2017 8:07:52 PM

President Trump has proclaimed himself the victorious generalissimo of the war to save Christmas. The claim is typical Trumpian braggadocio. Its primary purpose is to provide his defenders with an opportunity to remind listeners of Barack Obama, the despised Democrat whom they remember as a secret Muslim.

The president’s words have nothing to do with saving Christmas. If presidential rhetoric could do that, it would have been accomplished long ago. PBS recently broadcast clips of Christmas greetings by everyone from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Barack Obama (who added, for good measure, “and God bless America” to his Christmas greeting).

It is true that liberals and other “politically correct” people try to be sensitive about wishing “merry Christmas” to people who may not celebrate the Christian feast day and who have settled instead on “happy holidays” as less likely to give offense.

But there is a deeper issue at the root of uncertainty about the meaning of Christmas. The civic faith that dominated Western culture from the Renaissance to the end of the second millennium is rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith. Lately that faith has been losing its sway.

Leaders of Europe’s current populist movement (GeertWilders, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen) do not hesitate to disparage the ideas on which the post-World War II world was built. These are the natural allies of people like President Trump, Steve Bannon and Roy Moore. And if we think Trump and Bannon will pay a high price in lost influence for their embrace of people like Judge Moore, perhaps we need to think again.

Christmas offers people of faith a valuable opportunity to revisit the ideas and commitments that underlie the Western tradition. It is very, very hard to turn off the commercial noise and concentrate, but it is worth the effort.

The Bible is full of images and ideas that run counter to the prevailing ethos of our tumultuous age. It proclaims a messianic hope.

Psalm 96 sets the tone. “The Lord is greatly to be praised, more to be feared than all gods.” As for the gods that nations worship, “they are but idols. The Lord made the heavens. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him.”

“The day of judgment is at hand,” the Psalmist proclaims. “Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.”

Isaiah foresees a time when “all the boots of trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” A child has been born for us, he says. Authority rests upon his shoulders. His power will grow continually, and there will be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

The so-called lesser prophets, writing between the Babylonian exile and the Hellenic conquest of Palestine, are full of messianic expectations. Zephaniah (9:9) turns the genre on its head. “Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

Malachi (3:1-4) warns that the messenger of the Lord will come among us “like a refiner’s fire.” The Lord will be a “swift witness against liars,” against those who oppress their workers and steal their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, against those who “thrust aside sojourners, and do not fear me.”

Accounts of the birth and life of Jesus are set in the context of the prophecies and teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Luke’s gospel puts these often terrifying prophecies in the mouth of an angel, who tells Zechariah, an old man, that his aging wife Elizabeth will bear a son. Filled with the Holy Spirit, John (the baptizer) will “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,” in order to “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Before his ministry begins, Jesus goes to the wilderness and is tempted by the devil. He responds to each of Satan’s temptations by quoting Deuteronomy. At another point, Jesus says that he came not to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it.

Jesus’ message is essentially that we can all be Jews. We must obey the Lord’s command, that we love Him and love our neighbors as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6). And who are our neighbors? Jesus’ answer to that question was to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, who stops to help the man who had fallen among thieves whom religious men had disdained. The alien Samaritan was doing the Lord’s work.

 For Christians, there is no escaping the centrality of the message in Mary’s Magnificat. Astonished that God has noticed her, a girl of “low estate,” Mary exclaims that God’s mercy is on those who fear him. He scatters the proud and puts down the mighty from their seats. He fills the hungry with good things and sends rich people away empty. He helps his servant Israel, just as he promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.

Every word of Mary’s short canticle reflects a world turned upside down.

Many of us these days long to have our world turned upside down. But we’d better be careful what we wish for. A world where everyone is treated in accordance with God’s justice may be one where folks like us are scattered and put down while God and his true servants attend to the lowly.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, writes a regular column published the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.




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