This Christmas, I am in awe of how many people are suddenly in severe financial crisis -- and not far away people on the other side of a TV screen -- but people I personally know. I can't believe how crazily the "Big Three" automakers are reeling while banks are changing hands right and left or folding up altogeter like a cheap umberella.
I can't believe all the empty storefronts (large and small) and the la-de-da way the US Government is throwing around words like "trillion" and the State of California is throwing around words like "15 Billion" (that's shortfall dollars, not burgers served). I can't believe this guy Madoff and his gift for pulling off a $50 BILLION dollar swindle right under the noses of his "regulators". I can't believe this Governor in Illinois or the other political song and dance men. It's like somebody changed the channel in America from The Brady Bunch to Saw II without giving us a chance to crawl under the covers.
In the midst of this madness comes Christmas, like it does every year, with its echoes of Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and Charlie Brown. This year, however, there is a chill in the air - and I don't mean Global Climate Change. This Christmas, the lights are up but nobody's home. In fact, people are lucky if they have a home to come home to at all. It's a strange new version The Christmas Story where, instead of receiving his "major award", Ralphie's dad gets foreclosure papers posted in his front window and then drives his Oldsmobile into a ditch.
Churches are hurting too, and charities like the Salvation Army. The other day I was at South Coast Plaza where a female bell ringer was standing silently next to a kettle ("bell ringing" is now forbidden at tony malls, so it seems). In another nearby community, some mega-Grinch complained about a Salvation Army representative being allowed on Post Office property, even though this had been going on for years. They're "anti-gay" -- those Salvation Army storm troopers -- and have to be stopped says he. The powers that be said "oops" and moved the offending bell ringer to another location where far less money would be collected for a charity that is broadly recognized for its generous kindness to whosoever will. Dear God, is this what Christmas in America has come to?
My point is that sentimental Christmas is not up to this perfect storm of political correctness, financial crisis and collective fear and loathing. Santa's sleigh is stalled in line at the WalMart and not even Rudolph's red nose can penetrate the gathering gloom. O'Reilley might be handing out "Merry Christmas" bumper stickers, but instead of being a familiar traditional greeting, the phrase has become a defiant political statement along the lines of "hell no, we won't go".
What we need is REAL Christmas -- the Jesus-centered kind. That's because the Bible reminds us that the First Christmas took place during a period of political oppression, social turmoil and religious sterility. "That", God said, "is the kind of environment that is just right for my Messiah to come". This is the Jesus, the True Gift of Christmas , that we need in times like these. He is the One who climbed into this world "silently, so silently" before shaking us to the core when the time was just right.
Yes, God was at work in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people during the most unlikely times when His Son took on flesh and blood and walked among us. If Christmas has any real meaning anymore it is that what really matters transcends the contradictory nature of our times and drives right towards the heart of things. If you're looking for THAT kind of Christmas, here's a hint: you won't find it in Bedford Falls or Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. You'll find it, like the shepherds, tucked away and nurtured by those who are in awe of the risk, the simplicity and the power of it all.