“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
Luke 2:14 (Common English Bible)
There is a Christmas song that ponders in a rather wistful manner, why the world is unable to embrace the spirit of Christmas all year long. At Christmas, we crawl out from our hard shell of self-concern, our eyes sparkle with wonder, and we behave with an uncharacteristic charity toward all people. We slog through eleven months of drudging effort, eyes squarely focused upon survival in a competitive marketplace with little attention to others, and then Christmas comes. We throw off the heavy coat of selfishness for a time. Kindness permeates the places of our soul made callous by fear of scarcity and generosity flows from hidden springs in our heart. We play, we laugh, and we are amiable to the stranger and friend equally. That Christmas song is on to something. Why can’t we have the spirit of Christmas all year long?
Bethlehem is a divine interruption. The world today is little different from the world that welcomed the birth of Jesus. Enemies are everywhere and national security continues to be a pressing concern. Inequity of wealth among people of every nation conveniently ignores the apostle Paul’s call that those who have much shouldn’t have too much and those who have little shouldn’t have too little (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). But Bethlehem invites the world to a fresh imagination; to imagine a world where instruments of war are repurposed into farming instruments and people impulsively and joyfully share from their abundance so that others may simply have enough. Bethlehem asks that we look at the world differently, asks that we live differently.
The spirit of Christmas is a deep and persistent call to pay attention to God. It is a call to see and participate in the creation of a new world where peace and good will abounds. Bethlehem is not an occasional indulgence – an occasion where we lay aside for a moment careful attention to our health and consume copious quantities of Christmas cookies and eggnog. Bethlehem asks that we care about the world of which we are a part. Bethlehem invites us to join the angels in announcing that God has unleashed upon the world a new order where all people may find carefree rest in God. Bethlehem is not a charming dream. It is not an aspirational goal. Bethlehem is a confident and certain reality. God has come into this world and nothing is going to be the same.
Go to Bethlehem this year. Go and bow down before this magnificent birth of a new world order. Discover in Bethlehem God’s divine intention for each of us; discover that peace and good will is not for one month of the year but God’s gift to be embraced and shared all year. But if you go to Bethlehem, recognize that Bethlehem makes demands upon all who visit. Bethlehem asks that you dedicate your life to speeding up the tempo of good will in all your relationships. Bethlehem will ask you to guard your speech and exercise restraint in the use of acrimony, harsh, and mean criticism. Bethlehem will demand civility, humility, and respect of others, particularly of those you disagree with. And Bethlehem will ask of you uncommon generosity toward others. Bethlehem asks a good deal from all who visit. But Bethlehem gives in return God’s peace. That is the spirit of Christmas.