Getting the Christ Out of Christmas
My brother and I got into a fight at the Christmas dinner table. This year it wasn’t our usual conservative-vs.-liberal spat, over homosexuality or abortion. (My brother is a Bible-believing Evangelical who reads Athanasius, to grasp the fullness of the Trinity. I’m a Babel-believing writer who reads Flannery O’Connor, to hear revelation in the off-key hallelujahs of misfit souls.)
This year, our holiday fight was over a Whole Foods pumpkin pie we weren’t going to eat. (Our dinner guests had brought a chocolate cheesecake for dessert.) I said I’d donate the pie to a local women’s shelter. My brother wanted to take the pie to his church potluck the next day. I got self-righteous, and my brother got defensive: I said the most clear message of the gospels is that Jesus calls his followers to share what they have with the poor—in fact, he commanded his disciples to sell all their possessions and give the money away. My brother said that was for a particular people at a particular time. And there are people in his church who struggle to put food on the table, and he was worried there wouldn’t be enough for lunch tomorrow.
So we fought over what’s more Christ-like: to take all our leftovers to the small middle-class congregation my brother co-pastors, or to let them eat cheesecake, and donate the organic pumpkin pie to the homeless shelter. Both of us were wrong: I’m too fraught with privileged guilt to think of people in the suburbs struggling to put food on the table, and my brother’s too Christ-centered on church to let some of his fellow Bible-believers go without dessert.
My brother left the table to work on a sermon about the Magnificat, the teen-pregnant Virgin Mary’s song about how God “has filled the hungry with good things.” I put the pumpkin pie in the freezer, to keep it fresh until I’d get a chance to take it down to the women’s shelter next week. We’re both hypocrites.
My brother and I try not to enjoy our family’s wealth too much. I shop at Thrift Stores and in my friends’ closets. He doesn’t go to expensive restaurants, and he orders the cheapest thing on the menu when our dad takes us out to dinner. But our moderate ways of being frugal are a far cry from the radical poverty Jesus called for: When he sends his twelve disciples out to preach and heal, he says “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money.” (Luke 9:3) My brother’s right: That was for a particular people at a particular time. But I can’t imagine Jesus would think our discount ways of clothing and feeding ourselves is enough, much less our donation of pumpkin pie that wouldn’t fit in the fridge.
Our Christmas dinner fight is all the more petty in light of Jesus’ first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3) Who are the poor in spirit? Those who have no will, according to medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart. Those who are so unified with God that they have no desire of their own.
Clearly, my brother and I cannot—or will not—be as poor as it seems Jesus wants us to be. What are we—who want to share what we have and who don’t want to be poor—to do? First, let’s be honest with ourselves.
At the Christmas dinner table, my brother and I were fighting over a pumpkin pie that’s not going to make much difference in the life of his church, much less in the lives of the people staying at a homeless shelter. We were really fighting out of hypocrisy: I resent people who aren’t fraught with guilt over not giving enough to the poor. My brother is uncomfortable with his comfortable suburban lifestyle, when he knows very well that the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed looks nothing like a subdivision.
But how do you transform a culture? my brother asks. How do you get people to give up all their crap?
This year’s Christmas dinner fight raises another question that’s central to Christian ethics: How to prioritize your obligations—to your family, to your community of co-religionists, and to others in need? Early Christians appropriated agape, a Greek word for love, as a way of articulating the self-sacrificial love of God for humans. But what is agape among humans? The writer of the gospel of Matthew puts agape in Jesus’ mouth, when he’s asked what the greatest commandment is: “‘Love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love (agape) your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt. 22:37-40)
You’d have to turn to the gospel of Luke to know who Jesus thinks your neighbor is. He replies to that question with a parable: A man was beaten by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passes him on the other side of the road. A Levite, also, sees the man suffering and passes him by. It’s a Samaritan, a presumed enemy of Jews, an unlikely do-gooder in the social system of ancient Israel, who helps the wounded man—selflessly and lavishly. He bandages his wounds, pours in oil and wine. He carries the man on his own donkey to a nearby inn, takes care of him, and pays for his stay. Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Jesus asks rhetorically. An expert in the law gets it right: “The man who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
But agape is more complicated than the right answer to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and doing likewise is much easier said than done. I’m not comfortable with the idea, implied in the law expert’s answer to Jesus’ question, that being better off than someone puts you in a position to have mercy on him. I don’t believe mercy works that way.
C.S. Lewis described agape as a selfless love that is committed to the well-being of the other. But are humans capable of purely selfless love? Isn’t there always something to be gained in acts of self-sacrifice?
I bumble, quite anxiously, to devote a good bit of the riches I have to the well-being of others. I do this partly out of abstract love and largely out of compulsive guilt. I blunder, trying to practice agape, trying to “help”—with a sandwich or a pair of gloves, offered to someone who appears to be hungry or cold. And in that offer, I’m begging: Please, let me help you. I’m making a needy object of my neighbor, begging him to assuage my desperate will to charity. And I’m the one asking for mercy.
My practice of passersby-charity is nowhere near agape. But it gets at a complicated truth best said by Reformation rebel Martin Luther: “We are all beggars.”
And we are all hypocrites. This evident truth was best preached by Stephen Colbert, in his satirical riff on Bernie Goldberg’s statement “Jesus is a Liberal Democrat”: “If Jesus really is a liberal Democrat, it’s time to get the Christ out of Christmas,” Colbert said last holiday season. “If this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
For me, Colbert’s call to honesty is an epiphany. Admitting that we just don’t want to sacrifice much to serve others verges on the type of self-examination that happens in Martin Luther’s theology of grace: As humans, we’re not capable of loving our neighbors as ourselves. And our failure to love plagues us with an anxious, guilty conscience that brings us to despair. We realize what we do is never enough to fulfill God’s love command. And this never-enough is a state of existential angst that brings us to grace, in Luther’s trajectory (and in his own experience): We abandon the illusion that we can help ourselves and begin to rely wholly and solely on God.
As a believer in self-reliance, I don’t know if I buy Luther’s psychology of grace. But I embrace the possibility that anxiety could be redemptive. I pray my begging to “help” the needy will bring me closer to loving my neighbor as myself. I pray for love aided by grace, as Thomas Aquinas defines charity. I pray for love enough to open my home to the homeless women who’ll eat my thawed-out Christmas leftovers when I make it down to the shelter this week.
Most of this essay first appeared as a KtBLOG.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.