by Wayne Self
*Wait, let me explain!
I’ve just finished a long journey with the man to whom I am betrothed but not married. We travelled over barren rock and desert from the foreign, heathen land of California to his provincial, ancestral homeland. We’re staying with relatives because there’s no room at the Inn.
If you call me Mary, you won’t be the first.
In fact, while I’m far from virginal, I am pregnant with a new composition that has often felt implanted in me like a gift and a burden. Did Mary, like me, feel that her job of bringing it to term was bigger than any other priority in her life? Did Mary, like me, feel inconvenienced by her trip, or concerned that this was no time or place for her creation to be properly born?
In can hear my atheist friends now: “She didn’t feel anything, Wayne. It’s just a story.”
Just a story? Don’t talk to a playwright as if the stories we tell don’t matter. They matter a lot. Maybe they matter more than anything.
For example, the favorite story we progressives like to tell about the “War on Christmas” is to say that it’s entirely invented by FOX News and used to manipulate the rubes in the sticks.
While the War on Christmas is the story FOX News likes to tell, it doesn’t come from nowhere. Such hype wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t reflect or amplify something already extant in the psyches of their audience. What FOX calls the War on Christmas is an amplified, spun version of something real: the disappearing cultural hegemony of straight, white cis-gender Christianity and the ideals it is purported to represent.
If we who were never fairly treated under those ideals can be forgiven for celebrating their slow demise, we should also recognize that those ideals have served others well. It’s hard for those who’ve benefitted from the privilege they inherited to see their world diminish, especially if that world, based in exclusion, is incapable of expanding on its own. Fear and its attendant anger are fairly natural responses to the loss of unfair dominion. When we dismiss or ridicule that fear and anger, we buy a few admittedly delicious moments of fun, but at the expense of opportunities to employ empathy and gain new allies.
It’s fun to ridicule the “War on Christmas” alarmism, but who can deny that Christmas has changed, and not for the better? The secularization that has made the holiday more open and democratic has also made it more madly consumptive. If we did right to remove the manger from the town square, we did wrong to replace it with a billboard.
If it’s true that a church aligned with the worst excesses of consumerism is ill-equipped to preach against them, it’s also true that those who bemoan the narcissism, the emptiness, the disconnectedness of our consumerist culture would find a bigger audience if they found common cause with the religious. There’s plenty of common cause to find.
Tonight, my devoutly Catholic sister will attend mass with her husband and three children. They’ll literally bow to something bigger than themselves. They’ll hear again the ancient story of the baby, the undocumented foreigner, conceived out of wedlock, child to two dads, born in a filthy shed and laid in an unclean trough, a fugitive from the law from his very first breath. They’ll be told that this baby is God—that there’s something in this world greater and more important than wealth, or political power, or the laws of birth, or even the “laws” of nature, and they will find it worthy of praise. In this act, as much as church leaders would often try to deny it, lie the seeds of revolution.
To wit: last night, Pope Benedict used his Christmas message to denounce gay marriage, calling it a “manipulation of nature” that destroys the “essence” of human life. But the Pope, like my devout sister, worships a Trinitarian God who is father to himself, conceived by union of feminine spirit with mortal woman to become mortal flesh that was still somehow fully divine. Talk about manipulation of nature!
This religion is preternaturally odd. It’s fundamentally queer. It’s revolutionary at its very core. It began as the religion of women and slaves, the poor and the sick, the oppressed and the outlaw. Its message that the sick deserved healing, that the poor deserved to eat, that the suffering weren’t inferior spread across Roman civilization with such revolutionary speed that Rome feared it, until they learned to control it. Even now, this bizarre story resists (eventually) any effort to harness it to worldly power. Maybe that’s why, despite the Pope’s rhetorical efforts, 59% of U.S. Catholics, like my sister, still support same-gender marriage.
Wouldn’t it be great for the Pope if the story of Christmas were simply the story of great and powerful men performing great and powerful deeds? That would be a story of honoring your betters, giving in to superior power, and respecting the natural order of things. But that’s not the story we tell.
The story we tell is that, somewhere, there’s a baby, an idea, a song, a poem being born that can change everything; that kings are trembling; that revolution is brewing in the countryside; that the world order so entrenched that we call it “natural” is about to be turned on its head; that even God places the greatest hope in the good will of everyday people.
When I tell you Merry Christmas, that’s the hope I’m remembering, and that’s the hope I’m placing in you. It has nothing to do with what I want you to believe, or even what I believe. It has to do with one of the old stories we tell, this time of year, and what I find to celebrate in that story.
So Merry Christmas, Mary, and may you give birth to something wonderful.
See you next year!
Wayne Self, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief