December 19th, 2013. Even as people across the country were Christmas shopping, listening to Christmas carols, perhaps watching a favorite holiday movie while snacking on holiday treats, downtown Durham, NC turned into a war zone for a brief time. A vigil for Jesus Huerta, who was shot while in police custody a month ago, turned sour when police showed up in riot gear and shot tear gas at the initially peaceful gathering. (Read a riveting account of the entire incident here: The Strangest Prayer Vigil We’ve Ever Seen)
Christmas is a season for social justice.
According to the story in the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ mother Mary sang a song when she was confirmed in her belief that her child would be the Messiah promised to her people:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
50 And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
54 He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
(Luke 1: 46-55, NKJV)
Whether or not Jesus’ mother actually spoke those words, the message is very clear. This child was the fulfillment of all god’s promises to bless the poor and to devastate the rich and powerful. To me, it’s a beautiful statement of faith. Mary wasn’t going to go for the pretentious theological discussion about the Meaning of Incarnation that hipster theologians preen about during the holiday season. She was worried about the here and now. She didn’t need a savior to found a world religion, to prove her right in an argument, to send anyone to hell. She needed a savior to trample oppressors and feed the hungry. She knew what need was, and she hoped that her son would be the one to fulfill the great need she saw all around her.
The gospels show Jesus as a man who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and harshly condemned rich people who refused to share their wealth. It’s a safe guess that, if these narratives are true, he learned these values from his mother. She had a vision for what the Messiah would do, and she passed that vision on to her son.
We still love Christmas narratives where things are turned topsy-turvy. That’s part of the magic of Christmas. I just finished watching It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie where a struggling small businessman whose life has been dedicated to helping his community wins out over a miserly financier whose only goal is to gain more wealth. And of course there’s A Christmas Carol, where a miserly old man learns to be generous and loving. Many people choose to give to the needy at Christmas, ensuring that children in poverty will have gifts and food on Christmas Day.
If Mary did sing those words, she sang them hopefully and prophetically. She had faith that, as her son said many years later, the meek would inherit the earth. And every Christmas season, we like to be reminded of that hope. If we are good people, we are fighting all year long for the poor and oppressed. We need this season to take a moment and rekindle our faith.
Because we all must have faith in something if we are to continue advancing justice in the world. If we don’t have a vision of the world that we can create, together, our courage will falter. If we don’t take a little time to regroup and remind ourselves what peace on earth would look like, we will grow too tired to continue.
And we need to also see the truly subversive message in Mary’s song. It’s not enough that the hungry are fed. We need to seek true justice. We need to upset the schemes of the greedy, overturn thrones, cast down everyone who uses their wealth and power to hurt others.
Christmas isn’t just a time of faith. Christmas is a time of action. It’s a call to revolution. It’s the shining hope that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be exalted. Exalted out of poverty and hunger. Exalted out of discrimination, above brutality and abuse. It is a day to remember promises we made to ourselves and each other of ending war, ending hatred, ending oppression, and to take another step forward toward those promises.