Christmas -- the mass celebrating the birth of Christ -- is the biggest shopping season of the year. To save Christmas, some on the right seem to think the best thing is to commercialize it. They insist stores advertise "Christmas sales," not holiday sales. They judge leaders by whether they send out cards wishing a "Merry Christmas," and not simply a happy holiday.
But shopping isn't the point of the story. It's not about exchanging Christmas cards, or about holiday parties. The story of Christmas is about a couple -- Mary and Joseph -- forced by an oppressive imperial government to leave their home to travel far to be counted in the census. When they got there, they were like immigrants, homeless in a strange land. The innkeeper had no room for the strange couple. If he had understood who the baby was, he would have offered them his bed.
Christmas is the story of a child born in a cow's barn, and placed in a manger, a makeshift crib. Mary and Joseph had no address, so it wasn't about exchanging cards. It wasn't about purchasing gifts. Yes, wise men left their daily ways, followed the star, and brought gifts to the child, while others might have stayed away from a poor child with little hope. The wise men were wise not because of the value of their gifts, but in their ability to see what the innkeeper missed: the potential of the infant asleep in a wooden manger. The Christmas story instructs us to treasure every child -- even what are now delicately called "at risk children" -- for we do not know what gifts even the poorest child of a homeless couple may possess.
What is Christmas about? It is about an oppressed people praying for a Messiah, a mighty warrior who would conquer their oppressors. He would come, they thought, assemble a great army and conquer the Roman legions. The expectation grew so high that even Herod grew uneasy. But when the Messiah came, he came as the prince of peace, not the marshal of war. He taught love and hope and charity, not violence and vengeance. He was the greatest liberator of them all, but he carried no arms, and provisioned no army. His army would transform the world, but it consisted of the legions of the faithful struggling to follow in his path.
Clearly, too few get the point of the story. Sales are reportedly up this year, particularly in the high-end, exclusive stores. But the moral report is grim. In this rich country, poverty is up, homelessness is up, hunger is up. Inequality is at obscene levels. The United States witnesses record numbers of billionaires and growing numbers of families without shelter, working people without health insurance, poor children without adequate nutrition. After Katrina, the saints didn't come marching into New Orleans. And even now, the survivors are still scattered across the 50 states, their homes still not rebuilt, their government still failing them. Poverty has been erased not from our streets but from our public debate, as politicians cater to their wealthy donors or their largely middle-income voters.
Peace reports are also dire. Our soldiers are mired in armed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our cities are girded against terrorist attack. We spend more than $500 billion a year on the mightiest military that the world has ever known, but we are more insecure than ever. We turn our backs on the genocide taking place in Darfur. We stain our own reputation -- and our own Constitution -- with torture, renditions and detentions without review. The image of the hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib -- arms outstretched, bag over his head, electric shock device attached to his body -- indicts us all as we remember the suffering of the cross.
You don't have to be Christian to understand the point of the Christmas story. So let each of us pledge to celebrate the real deal this year. It's far more important that the Christmas story be in our souls than our stores. Let us gather and embrace our families. Let us join together to protect the babies in the dawn of life, care for the elderly in the dusk of life. Let us nurture the sick, shelter the homeless. Stop for the stranger on the Jericho Road. Work for the promise of peace. Surely that is the point of the story.
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