How the Advent/Christmas story challenges our faith

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2021

[This series of four meditations consider ways that the story told in the gospels of Jesus birth challenge our faith today. They started as Facebook posts.]

I imagine that most of us would agree that the story of Advent/Christmas stands in tension with the story of the Christian religion over the past 1,600 or so years. There is a vulnerability, a fragility, a weakness about the former that often seems to be lost in the self-representation and the practices of the latter.

It actually seems that the Christian religion has aligned itself with the Herods of the world more often than the marginalized and vulnerable people who welcomed Jesus’s birth. These are my Advent questions: Is the Christian religion in its manifestation in history ultimately compatible with the faith expressed in Mary’s song in Luke 1? Has the Christian religion truly made Jesus’s central teaching about love of neighbor its center?

I find it difficult to fault the numerous people I know and know of who in light of their commitment to love their neighbors and the wider world have decided to separate themselves from the Christian religion. [12.16.21]

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It’s been nearly 40 years since I first read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Back then, I thought it was a wise and helpful book—and I still do. One of the ideas that stuck with me was his simple logical exercise: you have three propositions and only two of them can be true—(1) God is love, (2) God is all-powerful, (3) evil is real. If #1 and #2 are true, #3 can’t be; likewise if #1 and #3 are true or if #2 and #3 are true.

Kushner suggests (and I agree) that since God is love and since evil is real, then God is not all-powerful. Accepting that reality can actually be helpful in responding to the experience of bad things happening to good people.

Of course, these are issues that have been and continue to be endlessly debated and complexified. At the time I read the book, though, I found it a pretty persuasive way to affirm that God is love and that, in the face of the reality of evil, I could no longer believe that God is all-powerful (as in, in control of things).

Since then, I have only gotten stronger in my beliefs about these issues. I think the Advent/Christmas story makes the most sense in light of Kushner’s suggestion about power, evil, and love. This seems like a story about love in relation to evil, not a story of an all-powerful God.

One thought I have at this time is that the story of Jesus is not a story of certain outcomes, that everything will turn out just fine in the end. Rather, it is a story about method. We can’t know that healing will come. But we can know how it will come (if it is to come): Love, all the way down. [12.18.21]

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I have always been intrigued, and a bit frightened, by the Herod episode in Jesus’s birth story in Matthew’s gospel. It’s a pretty grim look at the violence that comes from insecure people exercising unrestrained power—and as such is an insightful commentary on politics down to our present time.

What I’ve come to realize is how the Bible from start to finish shows us that Herod is all too typical of people in power. That’s why Jesus taught that his followers should reject tyranny and refuse to valorize corrupt leaders. From the Pharaoh in Exodus down to the Beast in Revelation, “corrupt leaders” are seen more as the norm than the exception.

The thing is, the history of Christianity, at least since the 4th century, is a history of a great deal of comfortable submission to people in power and comfortable loyalty to nation-states that are inevitably governed by “corrupt leaders.” This is one more example how the Advent/Christmas story challenges religion as usual. To recognize Jesus as “king” (Matt 2:2) is to reject giving loyalty to “the kings of the earth.” [12.20.21]

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I have long been troubled by the link between Christian faith and the heritage of Christendom (Christian domination of Western societies). Some would say that I am a Christian mainly due to the fact that I’m an American of European descent—this equation is the result of the often violent and oppressive domination by Christendom of European and North American societies. A distressing dynamic, to be sure.

I do realize, though, that the main reason I find the domination by Christendom distressing is that my convictions are profoundly shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus. That is, there are convictions that come from the Christianity story itself that critique and oppose the Christendom-shaped domination system we live in.

I find the season’s revisiting of the Advent/Christmas story to be a helpful reminder of that story’s subversive message. As destructive as the influence of Christianity has been on the world, we also find in the tradition an antidote to domination—an antidote always worth pointing out. Jesus’s message is the *antithesis* of Christendom.

One stirring statement of this antithesis is found in Mary’s words about Jesus’s message: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). How crazy is it that people who self-identify as Christians tend more than others in our country to bow down to the powerful on their thrones and to support an economic system that continually expands the wealth of the already rich. [12.23.21]

2 thoughts on “How the Advent/Christmas story challenges our faith

  1. Good thoughts, well expressed.

    The Gospels are clearly anti-imperial although in a muted form given the danger of being too obvious and adamant about it. Especially for those (or other books) written soon after the Judean revolt, squashed in 70 CE.

    I’m working my way gradually through Westar Institute’s latest, “After Jesus Before Christianity”.
    It is good, detailed in the early chapters on the nature of Rome’s empire violence and of the countering social/community nature of the Jesus groups of the first 200 (!) years or so. A key point is their being not fully rebellious (generally, in their wide variety,
    especially after the Jewish war of 66-70), but seriously alternative to the more conforming lifestyle and social structure of most of the people within the Empire. And certainly to the domination and cruelty of Roman conquerors and administrators.

    Incidentally, the book’s a good supplement to the important earlier “social interest theory” work on Christian origins by Burton Mack and Jonathan Z. Smith.

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