For Christians, Christmas is one of the most holy and anticipated seasons of the year, and we begin our preparations for Advent in November (or earlier) and continue the celebration through Christmas Day. One would think, given the nature of Advent – a season of repentance and preparation for the “coming” of the one we believe to be our Messiah, that our hearts would turn not only outward to see how we might spread the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love to the world around us but would also turn inward to see how we might be contributing to the absence or diminishing of these in anyone’s life. I recognize that oftentimes, this is exactly what Christians do. However, for many of us, Advent becomes a season of shopping and decorations and parties and happy feelings fueled by fresh-baked cookies and fudge and way too many Christmas songs about unhealthy relationships and snow.
And then Aleppo happened. In truth, Aleppo has always been happening, in the sense that this is not a new tragedy in Syria but an ongoing struggle, and also in the sense that crisis, war, and violations of human and creaturely dignity are constant and pervasive in our world. Therefore, I propose that this year, we do not merely read the story of the first Christmas from our Bibles but rather that we read the story of Christmas in light of Aleppo – and of the United States.
First, let us begin with Mary. A young girl, unmarried, faithfully Jewish, she is selected to become pregnant with Jesus. We have white-washed Mary to become a paragon of sexual virtue, focusing on her virginity as the rationale behind the divine choice of her as the birth mother of God’s Son, because this fed our myths that sexuality is the moral issue closest to God’s heart. But what if this were incidental? Is this really the qualification for a holy person? Why have we skipped over the fact that she agrees to follow God into dangerous, scandalous territory in which she will undoubtedly lose her reputation and surely struggle – all for the greater good of humanity? Why have we focused on her virginity, shaming those who are not virgins and comparing unmarried mothers to Mary to show how they fail to stack up, when right before us may lie the key to Mary’s greatness and godliness – her self-giving love for others? Perhaps our cloudy vision and mythical stories of Mary are the reason why, in America, single mothers work more hours and make less money than single mothers in any other developed nation and why they make less money, regardless of their educational level, than single fathers with the same education.
Then there were the shepherds. These are our laborers, our working poor, chosen to receive the first birth announcement directly from divine hosts. I have theorized elsewhere that perhaps their selection is due to their care for little animals, for the least of these, but perhaps there is more to this story. Shepherds were not merely altruistic caregivers of creatures thought base and worthless by wider society; instead, they recognized that they needed these sheep, that the sheep were an economic resource for them. That is, there was a mutuality between sheep and shepherd that involved care, self-giving, and valuation of intrinsic and extrinsic worth. In this Christmas season, I see many of us doing great work for those we perhaps condescendingly refer to as “the least of these” – the homeless, the poor, the refugee, the single mom – and we value them intrinsically as created in God’s image. But we don’t recognize that we need them. There is no mutuality, there is no overt inclusion of these people into our lives, even though our lives in many cases are built on their backs. We are fine always having the poor with us and making sure they have a Christmas gift when they return to their underheated or unheated homes after a long day of underpaid or unpaid work.
Next, let us look at the kings. They heard through the grapevine the news about a baby king and saw a star that supposedly marked the place where this young man was living. These were men with wealth, knowledge, and power, and yet they were not threatened by another king being born. They celebrated him. In the midst of this, King Herod destroyed innocent lives in an attempt to eradicate any threat to his power, hoping that by initiating a murder spree of baby boys, he might kill Jesus and retain his power and position. How like us, America, is this? Suspicious of threats to our status and power, we turn away those in need, instigate hate-mongering xenophobia, and form rivalries and alliances with other nations based on who might increase our own power and decrease the power of others. We have chosen a leader who promised us our power, who told us we need not come to Bethlehem bearing gifts for others, that we need not share the scene. We have chosen power and privilege over peace.
Furthermore, I wonder why others did not follow the star? If it was indeed bright enough to warrant attention, and if there was a story of an important baby being born, why did more people not leave their homes to go see this child? Instead, we only hear of innkeepers who were too overbooked to prioritize a girl in labor without a midwife or mother to assist her, a few shepherds who attended the birth, and a handful of rich men traveling from far away, leaving their duties to visit this baby. I have seen plenty of posts on Facebook lamenting the deaths, hunger, pain, and injustice of Aleppo. But I cannot locate a single event in the large metropolitan area in which I live that is dedicated to praying for and raising support for the victims. When I asked for help organizing an event or linking me to existing ones, I got many likes but only a few responses. People are busy this time of year; after all, it is the holidays. The innkeeper was busy. Israel was busy. Herod was busy protecting his power. And they all missed Christmas. Friends, Aleppo is your star in the East, your call to Bethlehem to see this thing which has happened that, sadly, tragically, does not bring us good tidings today of great joy for all people. Whose birth at Christmas are you honoring if not the divine clothed in the flesh of a poor, racial minority, a refugee fleeing for his life to a new land from an evil power out to kill those like him? He becomes our hope for this world, our example of radical, powerful, self-giving love that topples empires and conquers evil and hatred. And he is Aleppo. Do you see your Messiah in Aleppo, calling you to leave your plans and parties and come to the manger, to do something?