The Significance of Christmas for a Troubled America

“I can’t wait for 2016 to end.” I have heard numerous people utter these words lately, and I know what they mean. 2016 brought the fifth anniversary of an atrocious war in Syria, Brexit, the election of a self-professed murderer to the presidency of the Philippines, not to mention another slew of shootings on US soil and countless terrorist attacks here and around the world. Of course, few of my acquaintances had any of the above in mind when they were wishing aloud for the end of 2016. They were thinking about this year’s vitriolic presidential election and its fallout.

Tensions ran high in this election not only because people felt the options of candidates have never been more unpalatable but also because of the widespread sentiment that the stakes have never been higher. Many people felt and continue to feel that their livelihood is threatened by encroaching foreigners, the imminent possibility of violent attack, and political insiders who have lost touch with the concerns of “real” Americans. Some of those whose candidate won the presidential election may now feel some relief. However, many more people (if the final tabulation of the popular vote is any indication) are even more worried about what 2017 and a Trump presidency may bring.

Besides harboring fears of what the future holds, it seems that many Americans feel hopeless that they or anyone else can do anything to solve the problems facing our country and the world. This widespread sense of disaffection is evident in the fact that this year’s election saw the lowest voter turnout in 20 years. A recent study offers further evidence, finding that among college students, whom we normally expect to be the most hopeful about the future, 48% felt that things were hopeless at some time in the past year (2015). The problems facing today’s world—racial tensions, global warming, a major refugee crisis—seem so big that it is hard for us to imagine how they can be resolved.

Thank God it’s Christmas.

Yes, Christmas may offer a temporary distraction with the flurry of gift-buying, festive gatherings, and red cups at Starbucks, but I mean something more profound. If we can pause for a moment to consider the significance of Christmas—i.e., the historical event we celebrate every December 25th—we might discover a reason to hope again.

Two thousand years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem, a town six miles south of Jerusalem. Small miracle that it is, there is nothing especially significant about the birth of a child. Babies are born every day. The significance of this event lies in whom we believe this baby to be and what his birth accomplishes. As Christians we believe that this fragile creature, who needed to be nursed and have his diapers changed, was the almighty God, the Author of life and Creator of all that exists. God became a human being. Most of us are so accustomed to reciting this creedal belief that its shock value is now lost on us. But ponder that statement for a moment. God became a human being like us. As Christians we also believe that the Incarnation—God becoming human—set in motion the sequence of events that would open to us the possibility of salvation. This is the belief that I really want to dig into here because it has something to say to our current state of hopelessness.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he entered into human history. That history began with grace, with God’s gratuitous gift of life and happiness to human beings. Soon thereafter, however, sin entered into the story, and it has been a prominent theme in the story ever since. What God intended to be a happy story from start to finish has been marred by violence and deceit, selfishness and self-gratification, faithlessness and senselessness. To take a open-eyed look back on the story human beings have written for ourselves—slavery, the Crusades, sex trafficking, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is enough to bring one to the brink of despair. The cause of humanity seems hopeless viewed through the lens of such events. And yet we are told that all can be forgiven, that all can yet be healed. We are told that God has saved us from our sins.

What is remarkable, even scandalous, about God’s salvation is the manner in which God achieved it. Given the magnitude of the mess humanity had created, one would expect that an act of tremendous power would be needed to fix it. One might expect something like a second great flood wiping out all of creation and beginning anew from a small, pure remnant. But God did not come to save humanity in power, majesty, and might. Instead God came in weakness to a back alley of a sleepy little town.

Again, we seldom take cognizance of the scandalousness of the particularity of God’s plan for salvation. We think of Jesus as the savior of the world, the God-man worshiped by emperors and billions throughout history, and so he is. But we forget the smallness of the life Jesus actually lived, the humble seed that only grew into a worldwide religion after his death. Following his birth under ignominious circumstances in Bethlehem, Jesus grew up in a poor family in the Podunk village of Nazareth, living in obscurity until he reached the age of 30. Even when he began his public ministry, Jesus was for the most part a local attraction. He preached and worked his miracles mostly in the periphery of the region, crisscrossing the Sea of Galilee to the small surrounding towns. He spent most of his time with the lowly souls of society, the fisherman and day laborers, the sick, the poor, the lonely. Jesus never wrote a best-selling treatise laying out his ten-point plan for correcting society’s woes. He never mounted the grand revolution that John, Judas, and many others thought he would. Rather, he preached his gospel and healed the afflicted in an obscure corner of the world, died in a group execution, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

And then he rose… and his message of love and forgiveness began to spread, a little at first but then eventually to the far reaches of the globe. Inauspicious as Jesus’ story began, two millennia later it has transformed countless lives and altered the course of human history.

Which brings us back to 2016 and our hopelessness before the ills plaguing modern society. The problems of the world are so big that they seem intractable. Any effort we could make—casting a vote, donating to refugee relief, biking to work instead of driving—seems pointless. What can such meager gestures accomplish in the face of such immense problems? But as Christians our faith stubbornly insists on a hope that the solution to the biggest problems—and there is no problem bigger than human sin—often comes precisely through the smallest events and people. Indeed, to celebrate Christmas is to commemorate the day that salvation entered the world as the smallest of beings.

This pattern has repeated itself throughout history. The greatest changes in society have often begun with a small gesture—a young Indian lawyer refusing to remove his turban in court, an African-American woman refusing to give up her seat on the bus, a Macedonian nun caring for the dying in the slums of Calcutta. Saint Teresa of Calcutta, in addition to embodying the power of this little way in her actions, expressed it in words when she famously said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” We should not mistake her to be saying that these little acts of love are noble but futile gestures. In truth, they are the seeds of transformation in our world.

Therefore, as we enter into 2017 beleaguered by seemingly insurmountable challenges, we Christians are reminded that our salvation has come from humble origins. The particularity of God’s work of salvation defies our assumptions about the insurmountability of the world’s problems. In all likelihood the salvation you yearn for today will come from where you least expect it—from the neighbor next door, from the quiet student in your class, from you. But in order for that to happen we must try, we must make the gesture, however seemingly insignificant. And we must keep hoping in our God, who rather than giving up on a sinful world stole into a little corner of the world on a quiet night so many years ago.