It has been a while since I have preached or even written a Christmas message. I try not to because for me there more then one Christmas. There is the commercial secular Christmas, the religious Christmas with its story about the birth of Jesus, the cultural Christmas, which has its own ways of being celebrated around the world, and the one I personally celebrate – the defiant Christmas. My celebration of the defiant Christmas was inspired by a Christmas card I once say hanging on a professor’s door. The outside of the cover had a brightly shining star surrounded by darkness, an evergreen tree surrounded by trees without leaves and then there was a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger in a messy stable. The inside of the card said, “Wishing you a defiant Christmas.” While something about the card resonated with me, I knew I did not fully understand its meaning.
I remember when it first began to make sense. It was several years ago and Zoe and I were coming home from somewhere. I asked her if we could drive around for a few minutes and just look at all the lit up trees and houses. Looking at the houses all lit up for the Christmas season is something I remember doing even as a child with my parents. It was something we always enjoyed doing. My brothers and I would be crowded in the back seat of the car and oooing and aahing as we drove up and down streets. We would be pointing out different houses to each other. ““Look at that one! Look at that one!"
Then we would come home and during Chanukah, my mom would turn off the lights in the house and we would all gather around the menorah in the darkness and my parents would tell the story about the small bottle of oil that was not even supposed to last the night and how it lasted 7 days. Then we would light the candles on the menorah. What I remember most was the light of the candles shining in the darkness of our home.
The meaning of this card continued to unfold while I was looking at the lights on our Christmas tree. They looked so pretty, but they looked so much prettier at night when the living room lights were dimmed or the room was dark. That is when it hit me. Christmas is not about the lights. It’s about the lights in the darkness. It was about that lone star in the darkness on the cover of that card. It was the light, which the darkness couldn’t put out. The light which continued to shine through in defiance of the darkness.
When I figured out the first part of my professor’s Christmas card, I began to think about the rest of it. The second image was this evergreen tree in the midst of all these trees that had no leaves on them. This image reminded me of the house in which I grew up. See the house I grew up in had these two evergreen trees in our front yard. Along the sides of our house, we had birches, weeping willows, and other trees. Every fall, the leaves would fall off all the trees in our yard, all the trees with the exception of the evergreens. I never understood why this was. It was one of those questions that as a child I always wanted to understand. It was as if these trees refused to give up their leaves. In the midst of winter, regardless of how much or how little snow we had these trees stayed green and awake. They seemed to be defiant of the rule that plants should hibernate during the winter. Their greenery gave us a sense of life and living in a time where all other plants seem to be dying.
The third image is one that is common at Christmas time. It is the image of child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. This child although dressed in the simplest of clothes is an image of love. While this child is not clothed in anything fancy, it is clear no one has abandoned this child. This child lies in a manger, a piece of stable equipment used to feed the animals. The child who was born to feed the world, who would give his life as a symbol of love for all of God’s people, was born in a stable because there was no room for his parents at the inn. This child is born of love and born to love in a land that offered him and his parents no love or hospitality. Amongst the darkness of inhospitality, was born the child who lived his life in defiance of rejection and inhospitality.
The light shines in defiance of the darkness, the tree stays ever green in defiance of the winter, and the Christ child loves in defiance of rejection and inhospitality. This is a very different Christmas message then most people have heard. Most cards these days are all about lightness, greenness, and love. The problem is that too many people in the world do not live their lives in perpetual lightness, greenness, or love during this Christmas season or any other time during the year.
The darkness in the world, the barrenness in the word, the inhospitality in the world does not end simply because it is the “Christmas” season. They continue to exist and we must be defiant in the darkness, we must be defiant in the barrenness, we must be defiant in the places of rejection and inhospitality that exist during this time of year as well.
Each of us has different things around which we need to be defiant. Perhaps our health is not good or the health of the people we love and care for is failing. Perhaps we are waiting for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not where they should be or at least where we would like them to be. Perhaps some of our relationships are hurting and in need of repair. Perhaps we are not sure what we are supposed to be doing with the rest of our lives. Perhaps the company we have spent our career working for is closing or laying off. Perhaps we have been experiencing injustice and oppression in our lives. Perhaps we are wondering how we can celebrate when there are emotional walls which separate family members from each other. Perhaps we are wondering how we can celebrate in the midst of global violations of human rights. Perhaps we are wondering how we can celebrate love and peace and joy as long as there continue to be people who have yet to experience liberty and peace?
Will we wait until there is all light, until there is all greenness, or until there is only love in order to celebrate? Alternatively, can we defy that and can we celebrate in the midst of darkness, barrenness, and lack of hospitality? If we do, where will it be coming from when we do it?
Our answers lie in the Christmas story itself. See, the Christmas story is more than a feel good story. The Christmas story is a story of a liberating God who comes to join an oppressed people in the work of liberation. God’s message through the Magi is a message of defiance. In spite of the presence of empire, human arrogance, and oppression, God is announcing peace and goodwill. This has always been God’s agenda. Once we understand that, then peace is not far away.
We celebrate in the midst of the challenges and imperfections in our lives and in spite of them. Through our celebration we let our lights shine in defiance of the health challenges; we let our lights shine in defiance of the financial struggles; we let our light shine in defiance of those who try to extinguish our light; we let our light shine in defiance of the darkness, which is not of the Divine. We do so knowing that the Ultimate Consciousness will see us through.
We celebrate in defiance because our light shines in the darkness of inequality. We celebrate in defiance because our light of the knowledge of the Infinite is needed in the darkness of hatred and oppression. We celebrate in defiance because we have this treasure within us, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to the Divine and does not come from us. We celebrate in defiance because we want the world to know that God is love and God’s love is for everyone. So this year, be the light shining in the darkness; this year be the evergreen in the midst of the leafless trees; this year be the love in a world of rejection and inhospitality. This year, I wish each of you a defiant holiday season. .