The longer I live, the more I come to understand some of the deeper meanings associated with Christmas. At the same time, I also experience a growing sense of astonishment that humanity doesn’t seem to take in and use these meanings. Wherever and whenever I look around, the human situation seems to be increasingly dire. Well, how about that for a merry opening to my reflections on Christmas!

Like most everyone else, I feel the compelling social pressure to be happy, hopeful, encouraging, and festive at this time of year, but I fear that if we restrict ourselves to that set of emotions, we miss a more profound issue. No, I’m not going to talk about all the needy people in the world who need your holiday generosity. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with holiday generosity, but when we focus too exclusively on it, just like when we focus too much on the positive holiday emotions, we miss the more profound issue.

The more profound issue has to do with our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. I grew up hearing the stories of Christmas in the context of an individualistic culture. While I was taught to have compassion for other individuals in the world, the focus was still on the needs of the individual. I grew up believing that Jesus came to improve the life of individuals, to help those individuals who were less fortunate, to save the souls of individuals, and then to celebrate how fortunate I was to live in a Christian household and community.

But I must challenge the premise of my early learning. Did Jesus really come to “save” a collection of individual souls? Frankly, for most of my life, it has not occurred to me to me that the answer could be anything besides “yes.” Lately, I’ve been thinking differently. I’m not the first one to think about the meaning of Christmas from a different perspective, but it seems to me that individualism still holds major sway. But what if the individualistic perspective doesn’t really get at the deepest layers of meaning? What if Jesus is not the religious “cavalry,” swooping in from “heaven” to save our individual souls? What if the message is more about considering a different set of fundamentals for life and community? What if we are “saved” collectively instead of individually?

What difference might that radically different perspective make?

First of all, it would remove guilt as the primary motivation for good works. Guilt focuses on the morality of the individual. It does nothing to affect fundamental change. Guilt happens in the interplay between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While guilt might pry some of the wealth away from the haves and distribute it to the have-nots, it does nothing to transform the hierarchy of the relationship. If nothing else, Jesus challenged the notion that some people and groups actually “deserve” to have more than others. He challenged the notion that God has blessed the rich and powerful, leaving the disenfranchised out in the cold. Furthermore, the earliest manifestations of “Christian” community challenged the idea that individuals had to protect themselves by amassing wealth and power!

Parenthetically, one could argue that this early community was “socialist” in structure, but that would be missing the point once again. All of our economic systems still focus on how much “stuff” is owned, whether by the individual or the group is irrelevant! That early Christian community came together, not around a different way to own stuff, but because they had learned (presumably through Jesus) a different way of relating. It was the quality of the relationships in the community that provided security, not their collective wealth.

Christmas is known to be the season of giving. But we still live in a culture that values individualistic hoarding most highly for the rest of the year. Jesus’ message tells us that wealth does not create trust. In fact, wealth seems to create more fear that someone else (of course, someone who is less deserving) will take what the wealthy possess. And the kind of giving we see at Christmas doesn’t really change anything at all if it does not change the system that insists on wealth and poverty as a primary measure of success.

The Christmas call to “Peace on Earth” does not mean that the poor should stay in their places and not be too disruptive. Peace is a matter of quality of relationship, not the suppression of human need. It seems to me that Chief Seattle spoke more in keeping with the message of Jesus than many American Christian churches when he said that whatever we do to the web of life (in which we all participate) we do to ourselves.

What if the Christmas message actually proclaims the web of life (not simply a collection of individuals) as the focus of salvation? If we come to believe that, maybe real transformation is possible.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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