Thursday, December 09, 2010


We’ve just come through the election season. The jockeying for power is over, at least for a while. Power seems to have shifted in the direction of the Republican Party. Time will tell whether or not that’s true.

If the money spent on the elections is any indicator there was a lot to fight for. Who would control the power of the national purse? Who would have the power and the votes to legislate? Who would have the final say on how the trillions of dollars we and future generations of Americans pour in to government coffers is to be spent?

No wonder the in-fighting was so vicious. As philosophers have observed over the centuries, power can be quite intoxicating. Sadly, it’s this intoxication that often leads people to grasp for power and then misunderstand or misapply it once they’re elected.

In the 1930’s, Mao Tse-Tung told his fellow revolutionaries they must “grasp the truth that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To us, Mao’s ideas seem extreme. But, if we look at power along a societal continuum I think we’d be forced to admit that we’ve given government enormous power over our lives. Government can legally pick our pockets before the direct deposits hit our checking accounts. Government has tremendous power to coerce us to do things, even when we don’t want to do them. And, I think we’d also be forced to admit that government power is growing with each election cycle. And, therein lies the real danger. As Irish statesman Edmund Burke observed in a 1771 political speech: “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

But, is that all that can be said about power?

In a little over a week millions of Americans will be attending candlelight services celebrating the birth of Jesus. For a few hours the commercial aspects of the holiday will be put on hold. Hopefully, the dust-ups about whether the pre-Christmas festivities are called Christmas celebrations or seasonal celebrations, the arguments about nativity displays, or the pointless debates about whether or not Jesus was actually born on December 25th will be forgotten.

For those of us who believe, there should be a much richer understanding of what the Christmas season is about. Rather than arguing with our critics and feeling powerless, we should see that real power often moves through unseen or un-observed channels.

I’ve heard it said that the more things change the more they stay the same. As with many things, there’s a grain of truth in that adage. Centuries ago, the Roman senate was legislating in much the same way our political leaders legislate today. Taxes were levied then and people were moved like pawns, as they often are today. But, there are those rare moments when something special happens to break the cycle. The tectonic plates of history shift. This, I think, is one of the fundamental meanings of Christmas. It’s the story of something remarkable that happens in a small, backwater town. And, it all happens while the Roman Empire rules, moves, and shakes the world. The characters we see don’t fit the stereotypes we have of the powerful. The revelations come to outsiders rather than insiders. There are the shepherds. Why them and not the high and mighty? There’s Simeon, an old man with a keen eye and Anna, a widow/seer. Why them and not Herod’s pillow prophets? Why then and not now? Why word of mouth to announce the news rather than Facebook or Twitter?

The message flows outside the normally accepted channels of power. It seems, as 19th century poet Percy Shelley put it:

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us, - visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.”

Unseen, perhaps, but not unfelt or beyond the possibility of experience.

The older I get, the more I’m coming to see that Christmas is, or should be, about the gentle application of power. It’s not about the power to name the festivities or who has the votes to pass the “desired” legislation. It’s not about who is to be the community icon or celebrity; it’s about those who are willing to live and serve quietly in society’s shadows and margins. It’s not about the power of the purse; it’s about the human heart and the power to gently tug it in the direction of grace.

The message of the season was summed up in three words by the angels making the announcement – “Peace!” “Good will!” Unfortunately, the message is as difficult to grasp today as it was two thousand years ago. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same.

1 comment:

Knitwit said...

Well said, Phil. Isn't God a riot? We think we are so smart and so powerful, and then he pulls something like the birth of Christ - such a small, "insignificant" thing - and changes the world.