As a non-Christian, I’ve long wondered why Christmas is the year’s biggest holiday. I get that it’s Jesus’s birthday, and birthdays are special. But without his re-birth, i.e. the resurrection, Jesus is just another rabble-rousing Jewish preacher who got too loud for the local enforcers of Pax Romana. From my perspective, Easter should be the merry holiday, with believers showering gifts upon one another in emulation of the eternal life bestowed upon them by their heavenly creator.
Like Thomas Jefferson, I regard both testaments of the Bible as fascinating documents, but am wary of the narrators. Jefferson’s version of the Bible omits miracles such as Jesus’s resurrection. That works for me. In an earlier post I explained how I regard religion and spirituality as two different things, noting that “Religion is . . . perhaps the original authoritarian bargain: in exchange for obedience to your leaders (the deity and those who claim to speak for him) you will be relieved of your anxiety.”
Demanding that people accept blatant impossibilities as truth is one of the ways authoritarian leaders exert power and authoritarian followers determine who is “one of us.” The phenomenon didn’t end in Biblical times. Eleven months ago our current authoritarian leader insisted his inauguration drew a bigger crowd than Barack Obama’s, and despite stark empirical evidence to the contrary, his acolytes believed the “alternative facts.”
Does my dismissal of the resurrection mean I consider Jesus just another rabble-rousing Jewish preacher who got too loud for the local enforcers of Pax Romana?
In some ways. But I also think he delivered an extremely important message of undiminished relevance.
It starts with Matthew 25:35–40:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. [King James version]
From my perspective, the message is simple and powerful: if you are going to judge human beings by one characteristic, go by their response to the suffering of those deemed least worthy of help.
The message ends on the cross, when Jesus cries “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” [Luke 23:34, also the King James version] seeking redemption for those who have cruelly tortured and executed him — and, by extension, for all of humanity.
Aside: I think it interesting that Jesus implores Yahweh to forgive his persecutors rather than grants forgiveness himself. To me this indicates he either did not perceive himself as divine, proved (understandably) incapable of forgiveness in that moment and thus needed Yahweh to grant it, or both.
This focus on compassion, on consideration for others — especially for the least, however we define them — is perhaps the most important spiritual message of all. And though Jesus hasn’t been the only one to convey it (remember Hillel’s “do not do unto others” two generations before Jesus and the Dalai Lama’s “my religion is kindness” today), he is our country’s ultimate spiritual source, so his message is the one we most need to raise.
Because if America were truly a Christian nation, there would be no homeless people. The sick would get the care they need instead of palliating opioids. And racism would long ago have disappeared.
So that is my wish for you — and all of us — this Christmas day: a truly Christian nation. Do I hear an amen?