war

Christmas 2014

Throughout world history and over all the earth, there is nothing to compare to Christmas. No individual’s birth and no religious holiday is accompanied by music conjuring such depth of meaning or magnitude of expression. Look to the carols—both religious and secular. Whether hearing angels from on high on a silent night, or convening people to come and adore, or listening to silver bells on a white Christmas, these songs proclaim a worldwide longing for peace.

But with annual repetition, it is evident that mere musical sentiment does not, indeed cannot, advance the peace and equality proclaimed in song. In fact, if anything this celebration betrays a hypocrisy, if not a schizophrenia throughout most of the world. Historic battles have seen the calling of a one day truce on December 25th, only to resume killing on December 26th. And then there is capitalism.

It is too simplistic to say that Christmas has been commercialized. Many people who lament that reality are unwilling to give voice to the deeper analysis and uncomfortable truth that Christmas was not created to serve or advance a market economy. Such language is deemed politically incorrect. And sadly, many Christians have shown themselves all-too-complicit as monetary concerns have usurped values of peace and goodwill. It is not the ringing of bells, but of cash registers and Wall Street trading that measure the success of the season. How can world peace compete with world banks?

At its core Christmas is an unfulfilled vision, a promise of hope and peace that always remains just out of reach. Perhaps this is because the holiday is not really about mundane endeavors or economic profit. It is about an unanticipated bond between the human and the divine—a presence not recognized in its nativity and adamantly rejected in its adulthood. Christmas is about God becoming human in Jesus. The very idea strains the imagination. It is only approachable and acceptable through faith. At the same time, belief must find expression in action.

Christians, both as victims and perpetrators, have failed the message and mission of Jesus. As perpetrators, they have foisted violence and war on those of different faiths, cultures and political systems. Sometimes even invoking the name of the Prince of Peace. As victims they have refused to embrace the sacrifice of the Cross, instead, forsaking forgiveness and choosing revenge and retribution even at the cost of civilization. It is a disturbing paradox that the followers of Jesus can intently and successfully articulate reasons for war but remain impotently mute when it comes to peace.

So once again we find ourselves celebrating the birth of Jesus, the humbling and undeserved presence of God among us. As we invade and empty the plethora of stores in our shopping malls, even as we clog traffic on the world wide web from our homes, we will be engulfed in the sounds of Christmas.

Since hope springs eternal, this may be the year everything changes. Maybe this feliz navidad will be what the first noel was supposed to be. On this holy night the stars will shine bright, the earth will receive its king, and there will be joy to the world because this child was born. Maybe.
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The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only
not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
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