Although I can't find the link, this essay was published on Christmas Eve, 2006, in the Lompoc Record. I believe it speaks nicely for the day ahead.
Harry Truman said “the buck stops here,” while George W. Bush declared that he was “the Decider.” Such states exude strength and power, and it seems that the stronger and more powerful the leader is, the more apt we are to listen (and obey) to their pronouncements. As history has shown, the demagogue will try to manipulate our emotions and prejudices in order to control us, and the charismatic figure will seek to gain our acquiescence through a cult of personality.
Since today is Christmas Eve, it’s appropriate to consider a different view of power. Tonight many Christian communities will celebrate the story of a baby born to a young mother in a stable (Luke 2:1-20). The backdrop is an insignificant town in a backwater part of a powerful empire. When read against the stories of the greats of the ancient world such as Caesar, Alexander, and Augustus, it’s surprising that we would pay attention to this telling of Jesus’ birth. As Luke tells it, God chooses to speak to and through the lowly and the forgotten, not to or through kings and potentates.
In a passage that precedes the birth story, a pregnant teen age girl named Mary sings a song of praise to God; in this song, known as the Magnificat, Mary declares that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and God has filled the “hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55). It would seem that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”
It so happens that this year Christmas Eve falls on the same day as the fourth Sunday of Advent [this was 2006], and so many churches, including my own will consider both passages. As one hails God’s decision to bring down the powerful, the other tells of a history-changing birth in a stable.
Both stories offer a word of hope to those who find themselves on the margins of society, those who are voiceless and powerless. Hope is found in the God who listens to the cries of the poor. Mary’s song promises empowerment and freedom, and such a song can prove unnerving to those who hold the reigns of power. Katherine Pershey, a young pastor from my own Disciples of Christ denomination, offers a compelling reflection on the empowering message found in this song. She writes:
This great hymn of praise has empowered the oppressed and unnerved oppressors for millennia. Mary, who knows our Creator so intimately she carries the Son of God, sings of a God who reaches down and touches the pain of his people. This God lifts up the victims of economic poverty and political violence and draws them into his gentle arms, the way a mother hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. And this God sends the proud packing. The powerful and corrupt kings who are fluent in the ways of violence and domination are deposed. The rich, who have hoarded the stuff of Creation for their own purposes, are sent away with nothing to show for their greed (“any day a beautiful change,” December 8, 2005).
How often do we think of such things at Christmas time? Yet it’s the core message of the season. Consider for a moment the message the angels bring to a group of lowly shepherds, who are watching their flocks by night. The angels sing of “peace on earth, and good will to all.” That’s the rest of the story, which begins in a teen-age girl’s song to the God who is committed to leveling the playing field of human society. Who would have thought that the world would be turned upside down by a baby born to a peasant girl?
The message of Mary and the angels assumes that God will act on our behalf, but realization of this vision requires our participation, whether or not we choose to be followers of Jesus. We participate in this work of God by putting aside our trust in violence and our obsession with dominating others. It happens when we stop hoarding God’s gifts and learn to share them with others. Christmas is a time of joy, but its message is and should be unsettling, especially to those, like Herod, who live at the top of society.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of
Lompoc (at that time).