[Fresher posts below.]
– So 2,000 years ago, we are led to believe, strife and suffering in the Holy Land led God to send his only son to Earth to wash away our sins and give mankind the hope of a new beginning.
Now, exactly 2,000 years later, at this Christmas, there is still strife and suffering in the Holy Land and it has spread the world around, escalating to nothing less than a World War against terrorism and evil now being fought at our door.
Yes, this is a depressing thought — not exactly the gift you were hoping for this Christmas.
It would seem as if we’ve made no progress in all this time. In fact, it would seem as if we’ve made things even worse. And if we are left still with sin and suffering and without hope, then perhaps God also made a mess of things or did what He did in vain. It can look like that.
But stop there. Now is the time — if there ever were a time — to look at what Christmas actually means. And I come to believe that Christmas is not about the light — the star, the gifts, the warmth, the virtue — but instead about the contrast, about the dark around it. Christmas is about the need for hope among the hopeless, virtue amidst sin, light in the darkness.
I come to think of another Christmas: December 24, 1944, when the Rev. Martin Niemˆller preached in Dachau. I’ve long been fascinated by Niemˆller: A U-boat captain in World War I who supported Hitler, he came to oppose the Nazis when they opposed his church and he spent eight years in concentration camps as Hitler’s personal prisoner. Niemˆller is famous for the often-paraphrased warning: “When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church ó and there was nobody left to be concerned.”
What fascinates me about Niemˆller is that he came to virtue through the back door. He was not on the right side of things in Germany and he confesses that he came to the right side only when the situation affected him, when he became a victim. But then he stepped up and showed great vision, fortitude, and courage. He fought Hitler, for Christ’s sake.
And in 1944, he preached to a tiny congregation of fellow prisoners in Dachau. Die Zeit reprints that sermon this week and I only wish I could reliably translate it. But let the scene speak for itself: Here, facing the worst of despair and despotism was a man who held onto Christmas. He needed to.
The first Christmas was about trying to find hope when it was most needed. That Christmas in a concentration camp was much the same. And now, this Christmas, 2000 years after the first, we face nothing so dark and terrible and yet we despair at the grief of the 3,000 families of Sept. 11; we worry about the evil that fights us, we see darkness. And so we need Christmas.
Whether you believe in Christmas or not is entirely your business and not mine. But regardless, I think we all can see that the events of Sept. 11 have forced us, not unlike Niemˆller, to decide where we stand and what we must do when faced with evil and with choice; it changes us even if it does not seem to change the world around us. I think we all can agree on the need for renewal and rebirth in the world — in the Holy Land, in Afghanistan, in too many places. I think we all can agree on the need for grace and the need to learn how to love our neighbors as ourselves (which sometimes means protecting them against their neighbors). I think we all can agree on the need for an example and for hope.
So Christmas is not lessened this year because it is a bad year. No, precisely because it is a bad year, Christmas is more needed, more meaningful. For Christmas is a time for the future — for our children and for hope.
So merry Christmas, my friends.