I find the annual contention over crèches, crosses and Christmas versus holiday trees to be shallow concerns from the Christian side—an idolatry of forms over substance. And I muse, What would Christmas be if the historical Christ were truly at the center of the midwinter festival? It would be something radically different from what in our time and place is essentially a commercial holiday.
One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’s brief ministry was the healing and comforting of the sick. Surviving sources leave no doubt that Jesus gave special attention to the afflicted of body and spirit. Translated to modern times, his example should move a believer to attend to the infirm, the ill, and the emotionally distressed in every circumstance. Certainly it would lead to direct acts of service, including charity for specific groups, which has become a seasonal custom.
But for those of fullest vision, Jesus’ example would also include universal health care. It would be unacceptable for any individual to be excluded from quality medical care because of economic or social circumstance. Followers of Jesus wouldn’t judge who is and who isn’t entitled to full medical care. They would be adamant that all are entitled, and they would seek reform.
Charity would abound in a Christ centered Christmas, but instead of an emphasis on giving downward, from those who have to those who don’t, there would be an emphasis on egalitarianism. The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that Jesus ate at the same table with the dispossessed of his day, including women. It is one thing to work at a soup kitchen or hand out vouchers for food and meals. It is something else to share a meal, accepting those with whom you eat as fellow human beings through love rather than pity.
Such a radical outlook would awaken a strong sense of those “isms” that keep us apart—racism, classism, sexism, agism—and would ultimately look to correcting injustices and oppressions through what we’ve come to call social justice. Deep Christians would examine and seek to rectify a social and economic system that results in us-versus-them distinctions between the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the undereducated, the hungry and the rest of "them." Like Jesus, Christians would be social revolutionaries, working for systemic change, always from a universal love that knows no distinctions.
Women in particular would have special focus at Christmas. That Jesus consorted with and lifted up women, relative to the practices of his place and time, would translate in our own place and time into a recognition of women’s full humanity. This wouldn’t be “woman on a pedestal”—mythologized and imbued with virtues that the traditional culture does not or cannot practice. There would be equal participation by women in the family, in the community, in government, in the workplace.
A Christ-centered Christmas would surely confront the endemic violence that marbles our culture. “Peace on earth” wouldn’t be a once-a-year slogan; it would be a motivating principle centered in the teachings of Jesus, internalized with such passion that all acts of individual, community, and state would be inspired by the ideal of nonresistance. Instead of a temporary state, as when warring armies put down their arms on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, peace would be the permanent, expected, normal state motivating all activities.
In a Christ-centered Christmas, the ultimate criterion for judging the motivation of any act would be whether it is done in the expansive spirit of love, which Jesus once declared was the great law. Each Christian would be compelled to look within and rectify her or his heart with the expansive love that Jesus not only taught but lived. Christmas would be a time of reflection and perhaps of corrective change—a time of humility and confidence in the power of love to transform the individual and society and make peace real.
In short, Christmas would be radically different from the commercial Christmas we now know. Jesus was an itinerant minister, so he acquired scant possessions. There would be no Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving, with frenzied shoppers lined up for deep discounts and hard-to-come-by products. There would be few if any presents under the Christmas tree (if there were a Christmas tree)—certainly no extravagances. A materialist Christmas would be more than vulgar; it would be sinful.
What there would be, I suspect, would be the fellowship and the natural levelings of the common table: good food and drink, including wine. But the purpose would be not so much to feast and drink as to gather together in gladness and joy—to be true companions. No one would be lonely or hungry on Christmas Day. And, most important, Christmas Day wouldn’t be one day—a brief interlude in a materialist and market culture—it would be every day. The Kingdom would then truly come, as Jesus once prayed it might.