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Christmas Has a Dark Side

Micah Watson, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Director, Center for Religion and Politics
Dec 18, 2009

There has always been a darker side to Christmas. Simeon warned Mary that her son would cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and that a sword would pierce her soul. Joseph and Mary's furtive escape to Egypt wasn't recreational in nature.

Think for a moment about the carrying out of Herod's order to kill every male child under 2 years old in the vicinity of Bethlehem. It should be no less horrific merely because so many centuries have passed and the story is so familiar to us.

The familiarity is a problem. It was not all angels singing to shepherds, guiding stars, wise men bearing gifts and a newborn cuddled safely with his mother and father. Those things are also part of the story, and rightly so. They are plot details that we can't do without, but they are also central in part because they are so safely told, and retold, in pageants and sermons and nativity scenes. We understandably shy away from remembering the darker parts of the story ourselves, let alone try and explain them to our children.

Yet we miss the full import of the real Christmas narrative if we do not even occasionally dwell in the shadows of the original narrative. The gospel - literally, good news - only makes sense as good news if the audience for its proclamation is familiar with hardship, oppression and, at times, terror. Good news doesn't make sense unless there is also bad news.

Much of the bad news would have been understood by the Jews of Jesus' time as political. Joseph and Mary were traveling despite her pregnancy in response to the census order of an occupying government. Herod's slaughter of the innocents stemmed from his own insecurity given a prophecy about a future king who might challenge his power. And Jesus' ministry made the political and religious powers increasingly uneasy.

Of course the Christian message is that the bad news was not merely political. Deeper than any diseased politics that elicited hopes for a political savior is the fundamental disordering of the human condition itself. The good news of Jesus' birth was bad news for the powers that be, but nevertheless still good news for those who recognize they are sick and need more than earthly politics and earthly medicine.

This is what is truly offensive about the Christmas message today. It is not necessarily that God became man, or the difficulty of believing in miracles, but that there is wrong in the world that needs to be set right, and fundamentally it is not the government or the economy. It is you. And me.

Theologically this leads us back to the darker side of Christmas, for even the nativity scenes that decorate many of our homes point forward not to the celebration of the New Year, but another dark day with a hill and three crosses that also has become all too familiar.

This message is all the more potent because there is still a darker side to Christmas. In some parts of the world parents still fear for the lives of their children as they venture out to worship in house churches. Closer to home, Christmas is a terribly difficult time for many. Perhaps it is the first Christmas without a loved one. Or past wounds resurface with familiar songs and memories. It can be an awfully trying season for some amidst the good and wonderful traditions enjoyed by others. Given this, it makes sense to tell the whole Christmas story and not just the "feel good" moments.

Thus Christians would do well this season to rethink the setting of the original Christmas, and consider whether these less pleasant details render the story and teachings of their faith that much more remarkable. Moreover, non-Christians might even see some daylight between the Christo-American holiday focused on primarily on tinsel and credit cards and the genuinely Christian celebration of a light beginning to shine in what had been darkness.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18 edition of the  Jackson Sun