At what point did Christmas become another weapon in the culture wars, another political identity marker to draw a clearer line between us and them? I propose that we put the “X” back in Xmas.
The X is the light. It is a reminder of the importance of humility, an algebraic placeholder for the unknown mystery of transcendence. To many it also stands for Jesus, the impoverished refugee, the Jewish immigrant fleeing with his undocumented parents from an egotistical and insecure head of state.
This year the rip current of cynicism seems to be threatening to drown us in a sea of darkness. The president, the one who has been most vocal about bringing back Christmas, seems intent on also bringing back racism, mass deportation, extreme inequality, attacks on the free press, the corporate manipulation of the internet, the dismantling of the State Department and EPA, health care insecurity, sexism, xenophobia, incivility, trade wars, oil pipelines, coal and the road to a changed climate that will increase the number of what we used to call “natural” disasters and ultimately make the planet vastly less inhabitable.
One could almost not find a greater contrast to the Jesus of Nazareth who in Luke 6 says blessed are the poor, the hungry and, “woe to you who are rich.”
We hit a new low when our philandering president encouraged voters in Alabama to support Roy Moore despite the credible allegations against him. Exit polls seem to show that Evangelical Christians in Alabama overwhelmingly prefer a likely child molester to a Democrat. In disgust prominent religious leaders are abandoning the label “evangelical.” I hope that this does not similarly lead people to dispense with Christmas, to toss the baby out with all the bathwater of commercialism and ugly nationalist identity politics.
Theologian David Bentley Hart believes that today we have a choice between two narratives. On the one hand we have the story that, “finds the grammar of violence inscribed in every institution and hidden in the syntax of every rhetoric.” This is the dark world where might makes right and everyone always acts selfishly to get away with as much as possible.
Sometimes when you look at the people just trying to survive on our streets or our friends leaving town it feels hopeless, like there is no break in the darkness.
Hart contrasts this with the conviction that, “within history a way of reconciliation has been opened up that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes all violence.” At Christmas we become conscious of this light shining in history.
Have you ever wondered why we have so many substitute Christmas stories about ostracized reindeers and abominable snow monsters? Why do we have islands of misfit toys and wacky snowmen with the ever-present, slightly imperfect, Santa who nevertheless makes sure that good behavior is rewarded?
Sometimes I think it is because the real story can be so horrifying. Imagine Mary almost abandoned by Joseph because she is with child. Then enormously pregnant, at the most vulnerable moment of her life, she is forced by imperial dictate to go to the country of in-laws who are unable or unwilling to take her in. She gives birth in the cold and filth of a stable, before fleeing the wrath of a king who murders all the innocent children in the region.
And yet in the night something miraculous happens. Angels appear saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” The shepherds bring this holy family a message of hope. “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.“ A light appeared in a world that seemed completely dominated by darkness.
On this holy night 2 billion people will listen for an echo of the shepherd’s message. They may even see a light that reminds us that each person matters, each soul is utterly precious, unique and unrepeatable. Each of us can make a difference.
The most ancient manuscripts do not use the word Christ or even the Greek word Christos. They use the abbreviation XC (the first and last letter of Christos in Greek). Let Christmas be a time of wonder and humility. Let there be generosity between Christians and non-Christians, and respect for the dignity of every human being. This year let’s put that “X” back into Xmas.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.