I have gradually been catching some holiday spirit. I am feeling a fair amount of good cheer without having to drink heavily. I’m also aware that my elevated holiday mood is directly related to the fact that I am a petit bourgeois retired minister with a decent pension and ample reason to be cheerful.
I am grateful, of course, for relative comfort, good health, and good fortune (did someone just say “OK, boomer”?). I am also acutely troubled by something deeply, horribly wrong about any seasonal celebration.
This wrongness has nothing to do with Impeachable Him. It has nothing to do with commercialization, and/or secularization, in relation to December 25. This is not that kind of rant. I am troubled instead by the way in which the greatest beneficiaries of a season that is supposed to be all about exalting valleys and leveling mountains—about social reversal and about good news for the poor—are invariably not the poor at all but rather the comfortable rich: i.e., people like me, and people situated well above me in the economic pyramid.
What this means is that we have an inverted Christmas, one that exalts the rich while further humiliating the poor. This as true in our time as it was in Charles Dickens’ time. But unlike the Victorians who read Dickens and pressed for reform, we appear incapable of becoming outraged about it.
Our best journalists give us grim reports on the shocking injury rates in Amazon warehouses (but Jeff Bezos pays his workers $12.50—hooray!) along with bulletins about the latest insults to the most vulnerable: new work requirements for people receiving SNAP benefits, etc. We who are comfortable read these things and shake our heads and bemoan the lot of the less fortunate. Perhaps we write a check.
But really, nothing brings the reality of widespread suffering home like spending time with the people working in the bowels of any part of the gig economy (which is fast becoming the template and driver for the entire economy). Overtime pay, regular shifts, workplace safety, sick leave, parental leave: forget about all of that. So 20th century. These things are not considered “efficient” in the ruthless new order of things. Whereas handing ginormous rewards over to the very same pigs who have already grown fat at the trough: now that’s considered efficient (in Harvard Business School terms) as it fuels the porcine spirits needed to propel a robust capitalism.
Likewise, nothing brings the reality of the lives of the poor home like spending even the tiniest amount of time with people who are not making it at all: with people who are living in unheated tenements or living rough on the street. Children, for God’s sake, suffering exposure and malnutrition right under our noses in This Great Country Of Ours.
I will stop. My point is that there is absolutely no way that people who are engaged in the day-to-day struggle to survive can step into the space of awe, wonder, delight, and consolation that rightfully belongs to them at Christmas. Whereas the affluent can buy all of these things. The affluent can readily access spaces of stillness and beauty; they can purchase a Shaker-like simplicity. There are alpine resorts and meditation centers that will guarantee the whitest of Christmases (in more ways than one). And there are particular churches that are more or less reserved for the comfort and consolation of the upper middle class; churches that will also turn away the smelly and potentially disruptive poor without the slightest hesitation.
I said that I have started to catch the holiday spirit. Just a tiny bit. But I almost cannot bear to hear the “Magnificat” read—or sung—in a rich people’s Advent service. It’s just too painful to heard Mary’s exultant words, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their throne and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty,” in the midst of ecclesiastical opulence, in places where mere lip service is paid to the cause of the lowly.
It is painful to hear these words, especially in such settings, because where is the evidence that God has already done these things? Try telling that to the single mother with hungry kids and not enough money to pay for heat. Try telling it to the injured warehouse or delivery worker (or nurse, or culinary worker) who has to pop pain pills and keep on working in order to make the rent.
Yes, I believe it is God’s intention to bring deliverance to the poor. I believe it is God’s intention that those who labor and are heavy laden receive fair wages and sufficient rest. But it appears that we need to take the divine intention and run with it in order for the promise of Advent to be fulfilled. It appears that we who have plenty need to get off our butts and join in sustained nonviolent revolutionary action in order for God’s shalom to have legs.
At Christmas some of us will pray that Christ will be “born in us,” softening our hard hearts and leading us toward greater humility and service. I’m good with that prayer; anyone who knows me knows that I could stand to be a lot more virtuous. But I always pray—and pray fervently—that the real-world revolution that Advent announces can also be born, even now and even in a social order that increasingly rivals that of the Roman Empire in respect to its cruelty and violence.
Because without a real Jubilee there can be no real jubilation.