Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Reading on the Editorial Page

How interesting that on Christmas Day, op-ed pages turn to theology. Of course, in the last 20 years, op-ed writers have become less shy about letting their beliefs, religious and secular, creep into their writing. I like knowing that writers are human, and I like knowing what has shaped them.

On Christmas Day I noticed that a few op-ed commentators across the country turned their attention to Christmas and managed to take a time-worn topic and make it new again.

Karen Armstrong is always fascinating, and in this op-ed piece in The L.A. Times, she reminds us that the New Testament Gospel writers had an agenda, and it wasn't recording history in the way that it really happened: "Unconcerned about historical accuracy, therefore, Matthew and Luke tell entirely different stories. Placed at the beginning of their Gospels, the infancy narratives act as a preface, giving the reader a foretaste of how each evangelist understood Jesus' mission. Matthew wants to show that Jesus was a messiah for Gentiles as well as for Jews, so he tells us that the Magi from the east were the first to recognize him. Luke, however, always emphasizes Jesus' concern for the poor and marginalized, so he makes a group of shepherds (who were sometimes regarded as sinners by the pious Jewish establishment because they did not observe the purity laws) the first to hear the good news."

She reminds us that the Gospel narratives still have a powerful message for us today, and it might not be a comforting one, depending on where we live on the social spectrum: "The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod's tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering -- within our own society and worldwide -- will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded."

Over at The Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote a piece that links the poor and outcast of our current day to the outcast family of Jesus. He concludes by saying, "Being astonishing, of course, does not make something true. The message of Christmas seems scandalously unlikely to us, just as it did to sophisticated Romans at the time. But if it is true, nothing is more important. If it is true, poverty and suffering have been shared and dignified by God Himself. If it is true, hope and memory do not end in a gash of Earth. God, let it be true."

These are both fine pieces, and I'm both surprised and delighted to find them in papers with national reputations. I have die hard conservative friends who tell me of the liberal, anti-Christian bias of the nation's papers, papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. But I've got to be honest. I see these papers as always trying to give all sides a voice. Some years, one set of voices may be louder than in other years.

This year, I'm happy to see the Christian voice that appears in these papers. It's a voice that's not fundamentalist, not exclusionary, not full of fury and damnation. It's a Christian voice that reminds us that through the centuries, we have found God rooted in the margins of our society. In the Judeo-Christian tradition found in the Bible, God comes to dwell with the poor and the outcast, and God invites us to dinner there.

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