Ah, Christmas. So nostalgic. So sentimental. Fat, fluffy sheep. Singing angels. The ‘little Lord Jesus,’ asleep on the hay. Happy sigh.
Except… well, except that no matter the candlelit warm glow, the truth is that the communities who wrote the birth narratives about Jesus of Nazareth never intended them to be sentimental at all. They were meant to point toward his prophetic ministry of anti-imperialism and justice for oppressed and impoverished communities, a ministry that ended in torture and execution – and yet nonetheless insisted upon the resilience of hope, peace, even joy in the midst of gruesome, relentless violence. So… what happened? What… weakened Christmas?
I’ve been mulling this idea over many an Advent. Of course, when the Roman Empire tried to neutralize the Christian movement, adopting it as the Imperial Religion and making it over in its own image, the radical and transformative message was forced to move underground and to the margins. We all sort of understand how political power manipulates religious and secular ideologies for its own oppressive purposes, throughout human history and today.
It’s more than that, though. I think sometimes, it’s just too exhausting to dwell in awareness of the woundedness, the brokenness, of the world. Maybe sometimes, we just… need a break. A respite. We want the comfort and joy, the merry, the peace on Earth, for a bit, without the mess.
There is a word for that need – we need Sabbath. Peaceful restoration is healthy and healing – and vital. The problem creeps in when we forget what Sabbath actually is for. Sabbath is not escapism, distraction, or amusing diversion. That is avoidance. Sabbath is much deeper; it is the peace that passes understanding, because we find it when we turn toward the wounds, not away. The hug after working out a disagreement and hurt feelings. The meal after a hard day’s work. The sleep after a good cry.
For those carrying deep pain, fear, and grief – and these days, with the looming Climate Apocalypse, that means all of us – the frantic merriment of Advent can overwhelm our senses, like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. The rampant consumerism looks like fiddling while Rome burns.
Advent originally sought to provide a kind of ‘mini-Lent’ before Christmas, a time of meditation, fasting, and spiritual growth. Waiting. Preparation. The birth narrative symbols – a humble stable full of animals; marginalized shepherd families; refugees fleeing for their lives – all seek to lift up a concept of power and divinity completely at odds with the prevailing culture. The symbol of the ‘little Lord Jesus’ intentionally took the word ‘Lord’ away from Caesar and put it in the midst of poverty and pain. Just the way the slave songs took the word ‘Master’ away from the slaveholder and reclaimed it for the oppressed and dying. True power, true divinity, dwells in our deepest places of pain. Only there do we find the kind of power, the kind of peace, that no one can ever take from us. Only when all Creation flows with wellness can a Divine Vision be realized; but – conversely – in order to find divinity, we must therefore be willing to go into those broken places, seeking healing, seeking justice. And that can be terrifying.
This Advent, I have been wondering what symbols would better represent hope in hopeless places. It kind of cracks me up that we are still using ‘king of kings and lord of lords’ all these millennia later. For most people, ‘king,’ ‘lord,’ and ‘master’ are fairly meaningless terms these days. As a result, when we use these words to talk about divinity, they now reinforce the very ideas they subversively sought to undermine. Instead of a humble, dark skinned refugee sleeping in a barn, we imagine a light-skinned, lordly Jesus on an opulent and mighty throne. At the time the Jesus movement wrote those birth narratives, to use ‘Son of God,’ ‘Lord of Lords,’ or ‘Bringer of Peace’ to describe Jesus – instead of Caesar – was so subversive it was chillingly dangerous. But somehow, these people were turning toward it anyway – toward the fear, toward the death – with great joy.
So… let’s stop putting new wine in old vessels. What courageous symbols serve the deeply healing and liberating purpose of these ancient stories? What worldly powers today claim almighty dominion? The President? The CEO? How disruptive it sounds to sing to ‘little President Jesus!’ But in reality, maybe the name of Jesus has been too long associated with empire. Ironically, pairing it instead with its original, humble origins today can itself feel startling. The impoverished, refugee Jesus – while entirely Scriptural – disrupts our charming manger scene.
What feels dangerously subversive today? These are all symbols, after all, used with a purpose: to identify Divine Justpeace in the places we might least expect it. Where does the Divine dwell? What makes us nervous, uncomfortable, even as it breaks the bonds of greed, hatred, oppression – and sets us free?
Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn Rape Trafficking Survivor.
O come, let us adore Her: Christ, the School Strike for Climate Leader.
Come, adore on bended knee: Christ, the Cockroach, the newborn Snake.
Be near me, Menstruating Jesus; I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Glorious now! Behold Her arise: Welfare Mother, Domestic Abuse Survivor, Traumatized Veteran
O come to us, abide with us, our Water Protector, Emmanuel.
Note: for more sing-able inclusive Christmas Carols, please see my published Note.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.