Christmas in a Dark House Full of War (Epiphany 2020)

Behold, the Koala of God (Photograph supplied to The Guardian by Jimboomba Police)

I hope that everyone had a peaceful holiday season; in the midst of the world’s madness, we need it. Exhausted at the end of a difficult year, we long for holiday solace, and Christmas carols gladly offer a message of contentment and rest: the night of Jesus’ birth was a “silent night,” and the “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” In a message to the Vatican curia, even Pope Francis recently quoted John Henry Newman to this effect: “[Christmas] is a time for innocence, and purity, and gentleness, and mildness, and contentment, and peace.”

But as we reach the end of the Christmas season, is there another way to interpret it — politically, theologically? Is the “time of innocence” a compelling image for an historical moment when, to quote St Anthony of the Desert, “we have acquired a dark house full of war” — when this year has marked a quantum leap in our awareness that the world is being irrevocably and catastrophically transformed: Australia and the Amazon are in flames, and by 2050 Bangkok, Shanghai, Mumbai, Basra, Alexandria, and half of Vietnam will be lost to rising seas?

This Epiphany — the day the magi arrived at the manger on a mission to murder the child who posed a threat to the king — we might ask: What child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?

“A Rag of Pungent Quiverings”: Jesus, Child of the World’s Poor

The child portrayed in the Gospels was born into a destitute family from an obscure Palestinian backwater. The prophets who announced his coming were not meek but fierce critics of the powers that be; the shepherds who attended his birth were only awake because they lived the harsh existence of the poor and homeless to whom sleep is perpetually denied. The manger speaks of duress. Just as Jesus’ mother boldly announced a god who would “cast down the mighty from their thrones,” her son would likewise proclaim that it is easier to thread a needle than to get a rich person into heaven, that salvation belongs uniquely to those who seek justice for the poor. Jesus grasped the repercussions of these remarks, urging us in a tone of righteous anger well understood by historically marginalized communities: “Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to this earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”

Jesus would always be marked by his childhood poverty and never forgot where he came from: a day laborer, he disdained upward mobility, and in the story of his return from the dead, he appears not in glory but in such squalor that Mary Magdalene mistakes him for a gardener. Even in his resurrection, he appears in ever greater solidarity with the poor of this world.

This child was too marked by the world’s misfortune and injustice for his birth to become a mandate for complacent consciences. It’s often women who know best that all human life begins with pain and that you don’t need to prettify the agony of labor to say this suffering is for the sake of love. So putting aside the cliché of the silent night, Madeleine L’Engel remarks that “it was a time like this” that Jesus was born: “war & tumult of war, / a horror in the air….It was a time like this / of fear & lust for power, / license & greed and blight.” Denise Levertov speaks of the child “born in bloody snowdrifts,” a “rag of pungent quiverings,” called the lamb of God because he comes into the world “defenseless…perversely weak…reduced to a wisp of damp wool” (today we could imagine Jesus, totally without irony, as the koala of God, the bandicoot of God); and she calls us out for “wanting / only to sleep ‘til catastrophe / has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us, / wanting then / to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony.” A contemporary social worker named Kaitlin Hardy Shetler has written a poem that was passed around on social media last month; it concludes with a definitive protest against the Gospel of unthreatening meekness, proclaiming that “the real scandal of the Birth of God lies in the cracked nipples of a 14-year-old and not in the sermons of ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.”

“Still Seeking”: Mixing Religion and Politics

Some may balk at my conflation of religious and political imagery, and I take this objection seriously. It doesn’t come naturally to me, either, as a person drawn to spend his days comforting the afflicted. But it is also necessary, as they say, to afflict the comfortable — in this case, necessary to admit that Christmas announces not a peaceful bedtime story but the insistent message that the Kingdom of God belongs to the dispossessed. With the very future of the heating world in question because our capitalist mindset has prioritized short-term profit over the long-term survival of the planet, it is frankly immoral to preach a religion untouched by political concern.

Religion can offer us an expansive, even mystical vision; it can also curtail it, as when it is used to console us that the future is assured because God will sustain our species forever. The apocalyptic genre of religious discourse may sound extreme to modern ears (particularly in a comfortably developed country), but when we take a deep ecological view of time and realize the planet has already undergone five mass extinctions, the sixth mass extinction doesn’t seem so impossible. One of the most chilling things I read in divinity school was Karl Rahner’s suggestion that God grants us absolute freedom…including the freedom to erase ourselves from the face of the earth.

If it’s true that “there is now a single issue before us: survival” (Thomas Berry), then religion cannot behave itself by asking only the traditional questions and remaining politically neutral. If it cannot inform a revolutionary politics, then it must take a back seat to such politics. I say this as a professional chaplain — yet one who feels it is impossible to care spiritually for individuals without also caring for the damaged world-ecosystem of which we are all a living part.

True, what Jewish thought calls “tikkun olam” — the overthrowing of false idols and the repair of a broken world — demands spirituality and the best of prayer. This is because, as Thich Nhat Hahn puts it, “you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear from this Earth in just one hundred years.” But the window of possibility that remains ajar is so narrow that it calls us less to prayer than to urgent political revolution. As Naomi Klein observes, so much of the damage lies on the level of systems — of the global economy’s high-consumption, plutocratic engine — that we are faced with an essential choice: we can preserve the logic of capitalism, or we can preserve the planet. We “cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

Of course, most of us — myself included — prefer to put our heads in the sand and accept business as usual. We don’t want to think about the burden of our responsibility or bring up the “divisive” issue of politics; we prefer complacency and call it “peace.” That’s why (with the help of the DNC’s powerful sway over public opinion) people like Biden are thought to be most electable: because we are tired and overwhelmed by the scale of the horror we’re being asked to imagine, and we want someone who will reassure us rather than goad us to stake our lives on the pursuit of justice.

But there’s not enough hope in our future that we can sit around waiting for the climate crisis to be resolved; there’s just enough hope that something can change if enough of us hear the call to action. I am a late-comer to this call, and I feel how difficult it is, while facing the many burdens of our individual existences, to get more engaged. Perhaps in order to do so, we must tap into the utter depths of our spirits, where we encounter the undying capacity for something new. This may be neither here nor there, but today I visited an elderly Italian woman sunk, shrunk, into an old chair. I asked her the question I’ve been posing all my patients lately: “As we begin 2020, what are some words that describe your spirit these days?” She didn’t hesitate. “Still seeking,” she said. I smiled in delighted surprise. “Even after so many decades,” she went on, “I don’t have it all figured out. That won’t happen till we die. Meanwhile, we have to keep asking our questions, keeping our minds open, not getting set in our little ways.” She looked at me gently without batting an eye. “Am I wrong, my honey?”

A Light for Revelation: Images of the Twenty-First Century Child

Putting pious Christmas cards aside, we have to challenge the notion that the child of the 21st century is docile, obeys its parents, and promises us an innocence characterized by untroubled contentment. If there is a new image of the child that we might take to heart, perhaps it’s that of Greta Thunberg, the angry and radical child who has looked into the future and seen it about to be denied to us: a fierce child whom the president of this country, on Twitter, called upon to “go to the movies” and “chill,” but who has more moral authority in her little finger than he has with all of the pomp of his compromised office behind him.

(Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Contrast this image with that of Buttigieg, whom I take to be the retrograde image of the child. The debate about whether he tweeted correctly that Jesus was a refugee is beside the point; the scandal is that his own calculatedly fresh-faced innocence is meant to reassure Boomers that the youngest generation is squeaky clean, that it can achieve world peace without having to get its hands dirty. I disagree with the second half of Churchill’s quip that “if you’re young and conservative you have no heart, and if you’re old and liberal you have no brains”; but I very much agree with the first half. I haven’t met the man, but putting aside what honestly strikes me as blatant opportunism (he is on record, in a conversation with Michael Barbaro, admitting that his whole career, from college to the military to the mayorship, was planned out virtually since middle school so as to build a resume for a run for the presidency): To be so young and to prefer economic means-testing to radical class struggle or systemic change. To respond to a question about the climate crisis, as Buttigieg did two debates ago, with the anodyne reassurance that he gets it because he lives near a river and knows his basement could flood. To proclaim a message of “unity” when his slim track record on that issue sees him alienating his city’s citizens of color by preferring to defend white police officers rather than black victims of police shootings — thinking it is enough for a Democrat to say, “There are good people on both sides.”

Central to his and other moderates’ appeal is the claim that you can have good ideas under capitalism without being radical. The time for that is over; not only do the three richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country combined, human civilization as we know it may also be ending. In fact, the only good ideas are radical ones, and if these ideas are not electable, it may not matter much; the earth is a ticking time bomb, and we have a hail mary pass to defuse it. Victories for moderate candidates will only delay the climate explosion that a few more years of the world’s Trumps, Morrisons, and Bolsonaros will produce. Christmas must announce a revolution against the systematically false ideological consciousness of the neoliberal, capitalist, corporate status quo. To quote Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ,

“Someone, as a strict requirement of sanity and logic, must be willing to say a simple thing: ‘The machine is working badly.’ And if the law of the machine, a law of military and economic profit, enacted by generals and tycoons, must be broken in favor of the needs of humanity, let the law be broken. Let the machine be turned around, taken apart, built over again.”

And Serene Jones puts it in the imagery of Epiphany: “Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him.”

So is there room in all this for an innocent baby?

Friends lately have sent me videos of their children doing the cutest things, and it does make you wonder how some politicians can play with their grandchildren at Christmas while entering into a devil’s pact with the fossil fuel industry that is consigning those grandchildren to an unjust and premature death.

But we who grant that the threat is real also need inspiration. We too need someone — and not just an abstraction — to fight for. If one side of the child’s face, which we must heed, is angry, the other side, the innocent side, appears to us in a beauty that doesn’t remove our responsibility but motivates us to take it up. If the child’s face is in part a command to fight, it is also, in part, the blessed strength to go on fighting. This, I think, was the experience of Simeon, the one responsible for circumcising Jesus — that is, inscribing him into the covenant with G*d, consecrating him as a Jewish person commanded by Law to devote himself to justice. Simeon takes the child Jesus into his arms, as we may cradle our own children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews, and is so moved by the child’s radiance that he prays to G*d: “my eyes have seen Your salvation…a light for revelation.” May we also raise our children with the riches of a spiritual tradition and the fervor of a prophet — in the world they’re inheriting, they’ll need it — and may their revelation also motivate us.

Sadao Watanabe, “The Presentation in the Temple”

Behold! I Stand at the Door and Knock

I’d like to switch gears and end, at this portal to a new decade, by considering the motif of the door.

A first door:

I am so grateful for the fulfilling work I have in Philadelphia: as one member of a wonderful palliative care team, I visit patients who are sick to offer spiritual support. Dozens of times each week, I stand at people’s doors and knock. I wonder, of course, whether I will be welcome, whether I will be helpful. I wonder what I will find. And I am routinely made aware that as humble as it is to knock at someone’s door, the true humility belongs to my patients, who welcome me, an intimate stranger, into their lives.

A second door:

As I enter a patient’s home, quickly the scene changes. I am not the only one knocking. They are also asking for help; they are knocking at my door. Do I have room for them? In my own weariness and imperfection, do I admit them into the warmest place in my heart, or do I feel so busy and distracted — so “overbooked” — that I consign them to the manger, where they can move around in some but not all of me?

A third door:

I have a patient with an amazing gift for words. “There’s a misconception about Heaven,” she told me once, leaning forward. “We think we get to the Pearly Gates and have to knock in order to be let in. But in fact, when we die, God knocks at our hearts, and we’re the ones who have to decide whether to open the door.” I think she got this image from a painting she saw in a church once, illustrating Revelation 3:20:  “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you, and you with me.”

A fourth door:

The Christmas door, the innkeeper’s door. Mary and Joseph stand at this door, pregnant with G*d, and knock. Like Simeon, the innkeeper could realize that it’s not simply charity that’s being requested. What’s being offered is the invitation to behold the child who will change his life. An African proverb reads, “When the guest arrives, the host is healed.” When we welcome the child of our tragic century, the child whose lovableness demands social action, will we consider that this is for our own healing, the salvation of our own souls, as well?

A fifth door:

Canvassers are out there knocking on doors asking for our votes. We may join them. Collectively these knocks make up not a gentle invitation but a loud clamor. I have been slow to see this, but they constitute an insistent demand that those of us who would like to be peacemakers bring our gifts, as well, into the streets where the activists and organizers are.

I will never tire of quoting the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero at Christmastime:
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God — for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, [which means] ‘God is with us.’ Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. When the poor have nowhere to rest their bodies, and their children fleeing from the cold find only hammocks strung up in the fields and coffee groves, we must recall that the Savior’s good news is for all. The happiness of the Lord who created us to fulfill his salvation belongs to everyone.”
This last bit must be underlined. It’s not that peace is bad; it’s that in order for it to belong to everyone, the status quo must first be overturned. World peace requires social and political revolution; even Christmas announces it.