I get a little grumpy at this time of year, because I feel like someone has stolen Christmas, and I figured out that the Grinch is not to blame. Here’s what’s behind my bah-humbug attitude.
It wasn’t a holly, jolly Christmas for Mary and Joseph. In Matthew and Luke’s narrative, a decree by one guy with a lot of power, the Roman emperor, forced Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem where Mary delivered her first born in a barn. Then, to escape the soldiers of Herod, who were sent to kill the baby, Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt where they lived as refugees for several years.
No mistletoe. No homemade cookies from Aunt Elizabeth. No Christmas carols on the radio. No Santa. No tree. No cozy glow of candles in a warm church. Certainly no “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
During the first 300 years after Jesus, Christians could really identify with that story. Choosing to follow Jesus was often costly. During those first centuries, Christians were a minority, and often a persecuted minority, in the Roman Empire. Ten different emperors persecuted the relatively small minority of Christians during the first 300 years after Christ.
Apparently Rome felt like the Christians were a threat to their authority. From what I’ve read about the history of those times, the Caesars wanted religion to be traditional and predictable, to support the status quo. But this Christian movement kept talking about another king who ruled another kingdom, and the Roman emperors saw that as undermining their control over society.
Things changed when, sometime between 311 and 313 Emperor Constantine granted Christians “the right of open and free observance of their worship,” and then towards the end of the Fourth Century Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. That was the birth of Christendom, an arrangement in which the state and the Christian church were joined at the hip, and the church started acting like the state.
Perhaps the best example of how the growth of Christendom radically changed the religion of Jesus and his followers are the Crusades which began about 600 years after Theodosius made Christianity the state sponsored religion. It’s hard to imagine Jesus as a warrior jihadi. What happened to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”
Before Theodosius, Christians were a persecuted minority. With the birth of Christendom, Christians used their newly acquired power to partner with the state to persecute other minorities. The nations comprising Christendom increased their wealth by engaging in the slave trade and then expanding their empires by military force which allowed them to exploit the resources and people in their colonies. Those “Christian nations” started two world wars.
Lord Acton’s statement that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely paraphrases what Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That’s why it has been the temptation of Christendom to domesticate the biblical Christmas stories into comfortable fairy tales which neither threaten the powers that be nor challenge anyone to change the way they live.
Herod, the King of Israel, feared Jesus as a potential threat to his power. Later on, the Roman emperors feared the same kind of thing. Jesus called his followers to place their primary trust and loyalty in the One who ruled the Kingdom of God. Herod and Nero were right to feel threatened.
Jesus was and still is a threat to the status quo. He is a threat to what I’ll call the Santa Claus Myth, i.e. life will be good if we can just come home for Christmas where chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, where food and a drink or two and family allow us to regress into the security we felt as kids. No, if we take the Christmas stories seriously as a model for how we are to live, obeying God just might force us to leave what we call home and hit the road to who knows where, trusting that home will be wherever we are if God is with us.
Christendom’s rulers don’t like that narrative. Jesus was and still is a threat to the status quo. That’s why people living on the margins always seem to be attracted to him. Pope Francis seems to get that message. He seems to really believe the Christmas stories.
So, how did our celebration of the holiday move so far away from the original story? It wasn’t the Grinch who stole Christmas. It was Christendom. To quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”