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Christmas turned the world upside down

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

WASHINGTON -- When you ponder what Christmas celebrates, the holiday's claim is staggering.

N. T. Wright, the widely read biblical scholar and former Anglican bishop, captures its import by noting that the Gospels do not cast Jesus as "parachuting down from a great height to dispense solutions to all problems nor zapping everything into shape like some kind of Superman."

Rather, Wright observes in his book "Simply Good News," Christ is shown as "living in the mess and muddle of a very difficult part of the world at an especially difficult moment in its history and absorbing the pain and the shame of it all within his own life, within his own body."

Everything about the Christmas account portrays a world turned upside down. A new king heralded as the Son of God comes into the world quite inauspiciously, born in a manger surrounded by farm animals as part of a working-class family. This is a radical inversion of how God or gods were typically understood at the time: mighty and all-powerful beings, lording it over often hapless humans. The Christmas story is about God becoming one of us, and a particularly humble member of our company at that.

This is why Christmas has always been a fundamentally subversive holiday, and why Christianity, an organic outgrowth of prophetic Judaism, has always been at root a radical faith.

The joy of the day and the season isn't felt only by those who hold the theological conviction that Jesus came to save the world from sin. It is also thrilling to the sorts of people whom the buoyantly radical folksinger Woody Guthrie described as his inspiration and primary audience -- those casually dismissed as "born to lose."

"I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world," Guthrie said of his people, "and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

Christmas is the day for those who have been knocked for a dozen loops. Its good tidings are that the bad tidings about them are wrong. This is their world, too.

As an unabashed fan of virtually every schmaltzy Christmas television moment, I have long appreciated how popular culture's instincts about what the day represents are, perhaps surprisingly, fully in keeping with the Gospel's insurrectionary implications.

This is true despite the commercialization of the holiday, and despite efforts to politicize the question of who should say "Merry Christmas" to whom. (I confess to finding it decidedly un-Christian to insist on aggressively pushing Christmas greetings onto those whose own religious commitments are different from mine.)

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