If you’ve already taken down the tree, retangled the lights, eaten all the cookies, and unwrapped your newest gadgets, fear not; you can still celebrate Jesus’ birth without any of those things. In fact, many of the Christians gathering for Christmas today will go without them.
As our Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world, from Greece to Kazakhstan to the Nile Delta, honor and remember the birth of our common Lord and Savior, many will do so with few of the pleasures of Western Christianity.
Today, Syrian Christians will celebrate the birth of Christ in the middle of a ravaging war. Many Egyptian Coptic Christians will gather together in peace, but also in poverty. Ukrainian Orthodox will go joyfully to their churches, though the world around them threatens to mix corruption and conflict with that joy. Iraqi Christians will commemorate the incarnation, remembering that God condescended to become man, just as they themselves are reduced to second-class citizens in their own land. Palestinian Christians living in Israel will think of the Savior born a few miles away in Bethlehem, though they can’t get passed the security checkpoints to go there. Saints in Ethiopia, Japan, Bosnia, and Lebanon celebrate today, but as minorities, and sometimes as outsiders in pilgrim lands.
But they still have joy.
Their joy is not in their circumstances – just as Jesus’ own joy was not chiefly in his earthly condition, but in his eternal one. Their joy is in their eternal hope and home.
We should not soon forget it. And we should come alongside, even celebrating again with these dear siblings in Christ, just as we did two weeks ago in our own homes.
Leading up to Protestant Christmas, we sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel on more than one occasion. That I recall, I only sang Henry Sloane Coffin’s final verse once. Its two variations go like this:
O, bid our sad divisions cease, / And be yourself our King of peace. It’s a beautiful sentiment. But it’s more than that. It must be our prayer. If only we’d stop to steer our eyes to our fellow men, to actually look at the plight of our brothers and sisters, we’d see the poignancy of this song and the necessity of this verse.
Coffin wrote the verse in 1916, during the bloody middle of WWI. Is his plea for an end to our human divisions, our strife and quarrels, any less resonant today? And for so many of the Christians celebrating Christmas at this very moment – in places where faith and ethnicity, tribalism and politics, family and financial status divide – isn’t the need for heaven’s peace ever more needful? It’s just as needful for us as well, though we may feel it less.
I am reminded of the words of radical theologian William Stringfellow, who wrote:
The watchword of Christmas – ‘peace on earth’ – is not a sentimental adage but a political utterance and an eschatological proclamation, indeed, a preview and precursor of the Second Coming of Christ the Lord, which exposes the sham and spoils the power of the rulers of the age.
Those first century Christians, pursued and persecuted, scorned and beleaguered, as they were because of their insight, were right: the secret of the first advent is the consolation of the second advent.
And so it is for us.
So celebrate Christmas again today, as we should everyday, knowing all the while that we need the baby born in Bethlehem, himself a refugee to Egypt and an outcast in his own country, to end our divisions and be our peace on earth.