Political columnist and author E. J. Dionne, Jr., who writes for the Washington Post and The New Republic, is not a political writer I always agree with on a number of social issues, at least when it comes to the particular solutions he offers. At the same Dionne sometimes gets the big picture of things in an incredibly clear way. His editorial posting today, Christmas Day 2007, is titled: “The Radical Meaning of Christmas." (The word "radical" is often overused or misused but in this case Dionne is quite right.)
Like E. J. Dionne, Jr., I fear that we have lost “the radical meaning” of the Incarnation in the way we celebrate this season, with all its festivities and fun, and in the way the Church has gone about buying into all this fluff. Without a proper understanding of the birth of Christ the genuinely revolutionary aspect of hope that flooded the world on the day Christ as born is entirely lost on people.
Even more than faith and love, I think, hope is closest to the heart of the Christmas story. In an anthropological sense, Christmas celebrates new life and birth, a theme that crosses cultures and traditions. This sense of Christmas has a beauty all its own and embodies a nearly universal quest for renewal.
But in the theological sense as understood by Christians, the holiday is even more radical.
Christianity–drawing on the Jewish scriptures, particularly Isaiah–revolutionized the concept of the divine by putting aside deities who dominated humanity in favor of a God who entered the world in human form.
Thus were authoritarian conceptions swept away in favor of a loving God sympathetic to creation and empathetic toward human suffering. Think about the line from John’s Gospel: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him." John was not some 1960s hippie. He was offering something very new and important, a trustworthy God who inspired hope.
I’m not trying to convert anyone here, but I do want to suggest that Christmas might help us see that both Christianity and Judaism are fundamentally progressive traditions. I do not use "progressive" in a narrow political sense. All great religious traditions are, in some ways and necessarily, both progressive and conservative.
But it’s quite clear that the Christmas, Easter and Exodus stories are about freedom and liberation. All promise that the distance between God and humanity can be overcome, that deliverance is possible.
Dionne is clearly correct to assert that Christianity and Judaism swept away “authoritarian concepts in favor of a loving God sympathetic to creation and empathetic toward human suffering.” This is the radical Good News. And this changed the entire concept of religion, at least in the West, and thus its wider role in the entire world. The fact that Christians have messed this up a great deal, almost as often as they have gotten it right, doesn’t fundamentally alter the reality itself.
Dionne further writes:
The Christian message is frequently drained of this larger meaning and interpreted, often by Christians themselves, as being solely or primarily about personal salvation. But this sells the tradition short.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a fascinating encyclical on the idea of Christian hope in which he explicitly disputed the idea of "the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others." Drawing on the theologian Henri de Lubac, Benedict argued that "salvation has always been considered a ‘social’ reality."
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann concludes that: "The kingdom of peace comes through a child and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming."
One of the most pressing issues of our time is for conservative and evangelical Christians to understand that Christian salvation really is a “social reality.” What does the faith that we have received from the Incarnate Christ mean for the world, for our culture, and for civilization at large? Because we have done such a bad job of explaining all of this in the past one hundred or so years does not excuse serious effort on our part to correct this faulty understanding in the years ahead. We are only being faithful to the true spirit and meaning of Christmas if we act in this manner.