(Warning: This post contains adult language)
I am a Christmas Christian.
I’ve known this for decades now. But only now do I feel brave enough to say it boldly. Because, in many Christian circles, it’s almost like heresy to not say “I’m an Easter Christian.”
I’m one of those too. I love Easter. I come to appreciate the metaphor of death and resurrection more every year. I understand —-although I personally find no meaning, whatsoever– in the metaphor of “atonement theology.”
I am a Christmas Christian because it was first through the concept of “Incarnation” that I first came to understand and embrace by own Christian faith. Christmas and incarnation made Christianity make sense in a way that Good Friday and Easter did not.
To speak in broad metaphors, I happen to believe that there are three general categories of Christians in the world today:
Good Friday/Easter Christians
Here’s the point not to miss: Every Christian has all three inside of them. And perhaps the calling of faith us to explore them all we grow and change. My own theory is that one of these three, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, tends to dominate our personal theology (like being right handed or left handed) and speak the story of the faith more powerfully to us.
And for me, it’s always been Christmas. I am a Christmas Christian.
I know these words mean nothing to readers outside the faith. To those inside the faith, the theological shorthand lingo of these categories are self-explanatory. But, briefly, before moving on…
“Good Friday/Easter Christians” are dominant Christians in our culture, and arguably have been for at least several centuries…maybe even since the beginning off the Protestant Reformation. Their “way in” to the faith is through the metaphor of death and resurrection; the idea of “dying and rising.” That’s why atonement theologies are so terribly important in our world and our culture. (From Jesus’ stories, to disaster movies where the hero saves the day, our culture is enamored with atonement stories).
But it always leaves me a little cold. And I’ve always felt the need to push back against statements like “Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection.”
No, it doesn’t. God is God. God is able to save us any way God wants to. God saves people in many ways, and the metaphor of dying and rising is just part of the story. (Or else, why the heck to we have the whole Gospel, anyway?)
“Pentecost Christians” are those who primarily see God through the Holy Spirit. Their “way in” to the faith is experiential…through direct experience of the Spirit.
My first “way in” to Christianity was through the Christmas story. And all these decades later, Christmas is still the story that puts the lump in my throat, and stirs my heart. Christmas is where the tears well up, and the sense of God’s peace and presence is most profound.
The big theological word for “Christmas Christians” is “Incarnation.”
Incarnation means: God becoming a human being. In harshest, classic theological terms, it’s understanding Jesus as “fully God and fully human.”
But it’s more than that, really.
It’s understanding that Jesus’ Incarnation itself was a way of God loving and saving the world. It was a way of God reminding us of something that was already the case, of course, even before Jesus came: That God dwells in and through this world.
Jesus was born to ordinary peasant parents, in an ordinary peasant land. An outpost of the Roman Empire. It was, fairly said, “no place special.” When seen from the seat of power, Rome, Bethlehem is a “nowhere place.”
But that is precisely the point and the absolutely the reason the story gets told this way. Jesus is born among bleating, babbling animals precisely to show that there is no place in this world that is “God forsaken.”
In fact, to God, the words “God forsaken” have no meaning.
Every person. Every place. Every moment of life…the good, the bad, the ugly, the horrible…is touched and graced by the presence of God.
In a sense, the famous scripture, John 3:16, is a Christmas scripture:
“For God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son”
Sent INTO THE WORLD.
The verse doesn’t say “Sent to be crucified and resurrected.”
It just says…Sent.
Sent as fully God and fully human. Sent to remind us that the world, and all of us, are touched and grace with God’s presence. Unlike resurrection theologies of atonement, which see vast parts of the world as sinful, shameful and perhaps even irredeemable, Incarnation makes the wild claim that all God’s world is touched with the Holy…and that God loves and seeks to be known in all of it.
Jesus was “saving” the world, and the people in it, from the moment he arrived.
From the story of his birth.
From his miracles and teachings, that changed the lives of those who encountered him.
And yes, also through the story of the death and resurrection, and the birth of the Church.
For Christmas Christians, because God loved the world enough to be manifest in it, we are called to see the world as touched with God’s presence too. We are called to see every human being we meet as touched with God’s presence.
Those we disagree with, politically.
Those of other faiths and no faith.
Those who are cruel, or harsh, or publicly ridicule anything having to do with God.
This is the meaning of the “Parable of the Last Judgment,” which is perhaps Jesus’ greatest treatise on Incarnational Theology.
“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”
Loving and caring for others is not LIKE caring for God. It IS caring for God.
Visiting the sick, and those in prison.
Hanging out in dank, smelly stables with bleating and babbling animals…surrounded by donkey shit.
Yes. I said that. Donkey shit.
Let us not sugarcoat things for once, OK? So you can understand the depths of what I am saying here. True Christian theology is a whole lot messier and grittier than we allow it to be. After all, if we are totally honest, Jesus is born among donkey shit.
And that means….all those shitty places in our lives?
God is there too.
It’s maybe hard to see. It’s definitely hard to fathom. But when we say that Incarnation is a “mystery,” it must be so that this is a part of it.
Let me say it another way. You think it’s hard to embrace and comprehend the statement that Jesus was “fully God and fully human?” You think that embracing a theoretical theological understanding of “Incarnation” is hard? Because this is what I hear folks saying over and over…that they could believe in Jesus if they just didn’t have to believe the “fully God/fully Human” part. That’s what they say trips them up about him.
Really? That’s what trips you up? The academic “how many angels on the head of pin” concept of “Fully-God/Fully-Human?”
Try imaging God as present in the pediatric cancer ward.
How about in the heart of the terrorist?
How about within the mind of politicians you disagree with?
Or a murderer on death row?
Try imagining God as present in all those people and places.
As the kids like to say, “Shit just got real…”
(Addendum: After reading this blog, a friend suggested that “Shit got real” could be a pretty good definition of “Incarnation.” I LIKE it!!)
Can you see and believe that God was, and is still, present in the messiest, dirtiest, filthiest parts of your own life? Because that’s what it means for God to be born in a stable…among the donkey shit.
Lest you think I’m breaking ground in my over-use of the word “Shit,” my favorite theological meditation on the word is several decades old now, and comes from minister and novelist, Frederick Buechner, in his book, “Love Feast.” The lead character of the novel is a shady evangelist by the name of Leo Bebb. In the book, Bebb has been preaching somewhere, and a guy named Roebuck throws out the word “Shit” to try and throw him off.
Later, he’s taking a man named Antonio when Bebb says this:
“You take a word like shit, Antonio. A preacher isn’t even supposed to know there is those kind of words.You take anything people have ever done in this world, and the best you can say about any of it is that it’s maybe one part honest and well-meant and the other nine parts shit. If I close my eyelid down on all the shit there is in the world, I’ve still got to face up to all the shit there is in me, because I’m full of it too, Roebuck…”
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you about shit, Roebuck. Take it from an expert. There’s two main things about it. One thing is it’s stink and corruption and waste. The other thing is if you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God’s where there’s seeds growing. God’s where there’s something no bigger than the head of a pin starting to inch up out of the stink and dark of shit towards the light of day.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the shit with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”
That last sentence? That’s Christmas right there.
“God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the shit with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”
This is the joy, peace, love, and hope that the angels sing about Christmas night. It’s not tinselly, or over-sentiment and saccharin. It’s gritty, grimy, and human…and holy, sacred, and God-touched too.
Both. “Both/And.” Not “either/or.”
Christmas Christians are “Both/And” Christians. And that means two things at once.
For those of us in the Church, it means our theology should probably be a lot dirtier and grittier than we allow it to be. As Buechner says in another place, one of the chief mistakes Christians make is trying to be more holy than God.
But it also mean the world is a whole lot more holier than we imagine it to be too. A lot more kissed and touched with God’s presence and Spirit. There is holiness…IN the shit…and Shit IN the holiness.
That’s the way incarnation works.
It’s like the Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now.” (Which if you have never heard, you should stop and listen to…)
Incarnation is…REAL human-ness…and REAL divine-ness crammed together.
I know. I know.
People reading this are offended all over the place. Some are Christians who are, no doubt, offended by my repeated use of the word “Shit.”
I get that. And all I can say is: Maybe you have some places in yourself that you’re not willing to look at. Maybe you have some darkness in you that still makes you afraid.
Know this: There is no darkness inside of you that God cannot touch and heal.
For others of you, you’re still hung up on the whole “fully human/fully divine” thing.
What about other religions?
For me, it’s Christmas that makes possible the understand that God moves in and through other faiths too. I’m not a Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or Jew. But know many and love and respect them. And I can, through incarnational seeing, see God in them too.
But maybe it’s just the logic of it… “Fully God and Fully Human” just seems such a hard mental twist.
So then, ask yourself this question…which is harder??
Believing Jesus is both fully divine and fully human? Or believing the terrorist is both divine and human too?
Believing God sent Jesus as a baby two thousand years ago? Or believing God is present, crying tears of sadness, at the deaths of children in Allepo?
I submit to you that to be a Christmas Christian, to embrace “Incarnation” fully, is the hardest thing there is, not because of the academic theology of it, but because of the practical theology of it.
Because being a Christmas Christian forces us to expand to infinity our conception of what is “holy, and good and true.” It forces us to trust and believe that God is big enough to want to save the whole world and all those in it; whether or not the people I encounter, or their surroundings, seem “holy,” or whether or not they believe in a God at all.
To begin the practice of being a “Christmas Christian,” I invite you to read a blog I wrote a few years back, called “The Heart of Incarnational Seeing.”
Someday soon, walk through the crowded mall, and say to every person, “I see the Christ in you.”
Not out loud, of course! They’d arrest you and take you away…
But in your head….as if you were remembering Matthew 25…as if you were remembering Christmas…
Say silently, like a prayer, to every person you encounter, “I see the Christ in you.”
Snot nosed kid…. “I see the Christ in you.”
Shuffling old grandfather…. “I see the Christ in you.”
Disinterested teenager…. “I see the Christ in you.”
What I find, when I do this, a powerful emotion wells up within me….
Compassion for all of humanity.
Compassion for people of all faiths, races, sexual orientations, and classes.
Compassion for MYSELF. Which is something so few of us seem to have.
Compassion…in the way that I believe God has, for God’s good creation.
What comes from that compassion is the heart of what it means to be a Christmas Christian.
Being a Christmas Christian means treating each person as if they are a part of God. Because, as God teaches us, they are. It means we “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned.” It means we love the lost, and the outcast.
It means, because Jesus was born into an earthly family of choice, we love the LGBTQ community. It means, because Jesus was born to migrants, we love and serve immigrants, and all those who are different from us.
Being a Christmas Christian means treating the Earth better. Because, God comes to earth itself, to show that even Earth itself is not beyond God’s redeeming.
It means, because Jesus was born in the tiny town of Bethlehem, that there is no place in God’s earth that does not deserve our attention and love. God is manifest…God is incarnate…ALL the world too.
Being a Christmas Christian means loving, and having compassion for, myself. Because all people are touched with God’s presence, it means I am too. So, as I said a moment ago, we are called to self-compassion and self-love. We are called to treat ourselves with grace, and trust, as it says in the famous poem “Desiderata,” that “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.”
So, I am a Christmas Christian.
God loves the world…in all its beauty and grotesqueness.
God loves you and I and me…and all the world’s children…in all our beauty and grotesqueness too.
There is no place, there is no person, in this world that is “God forsaken.”
This is the true heart of Christmas, and what it means to be a Christmas Christian.
One thought on “I Am A Christmas Christian”
Thank you, Eric, for articulating this so well. I, too, am a Christmas Christian and it shapes everything I do as a pastor from preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administering the sacraments and mission and out reach. Thank you for your voice!