John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This command was made by Jesus on the night before his arrest, the day before his trial and crucifixion. His disciples were gathered with him in the Upper Room. A bit earlier he had demonstrated to them the radical notion that Love was not only a noun, but a verb. He did that by washing their feet- the lowest task that could be imagined by anyone at the time.
Now, he had begun to tell them specifically about what would be happening in the coming hours. He knew the game was on. He knew there was a conspirator in their midst. He knew the end was soon coming.
These are last hour instructions, the summation of everything the disciples have heard Jesus say during the last 2-3 years. “Remember me” he has said over and over as he served them their Last Supper together. Remember what you have seen and what you have heard; go and do likewise.
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
“If you love one another..everyone will know you are my disciples.”
The Way behind Jesus, the path upon which he invited, and invites, his disciples to follow him, is simple: Love God, and love your neighbor.
It is so simple, but it is also dangerous. It takes a great deal of self-denial and humility. It takes a willingness to give time, give resources, and give that which seems most elusive at times- hope. It takes courage.
That “substance” of being disciple has been redefined by those who, and I will say it straight out: The substance of being a disciple has been replaced, redefined, and reworked by those who want to be disciples but do not have the courage.
They do not have the courage to wash feet- to do the dirty, humiliating, hands-on work that Jesus demonstrated was necessary again and again.
They do not have the courage to see the person in need, pick him up from the ditch, pay for his care, then offer the caretaker more when he returns nor are they willing to stand between a woman in trouble and hypocritical bullies ready to throw rocks.
We are about to see what has become a yearly onslaught by those tip-toeing, fearful wannabe disciples, as the Xmas season begins. We are about to see the difficult substance of being a follower of Jesus denigrated, as the easily spoken words about being a Christian- are lifted up as
The. Most. Important. Thing.
Form over Substance.
An easy, outward and very visible example: The use of the X in the word “mas.” I remember my aunts fussing about this one Xmas decades ago, and it was something which I then took on as a personal crusade, even as a kid. It seemed dishonoring of Christ, to replace him with an X.
But then, years later, I learned that following Christ was not about words, or form, it was about doing, and being, and following. Here’s what else I learned:
X is the Greek letter Chi. It is the first letter of the word “Christ.” It began to be used early on by those hundreds of stenographers who laboriously copied the manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Paul, and many others of the early church fathers.
X was also rumored to mark the meeting places in the Roman catacombs where believers and followers of The Way would gather. These were largely illiterate folks, remember. With every X they scratched on the wall of a catacomb they were honoring their Savior, as they were when they would trace Xs in the dirt with their feet when meeting others along Roman roads. Oddly, every time I write the Chi– the X– I feel like I am in a tiny way honoring those many, many illiterate peasants and others, who moved Christ through those first centuries with their stories, their presence, their deeds, and their gatherings together in times which demanded real and raw courage.
X was such a commonly used name for Christ that Constantine, in the year 325, the year he proclaimed the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire, took the Chi, added a Rho- C,R- and made it into a symbol on his soldier’s shields and flags. An unfortunate day in Christian history, perhaps, but not one which meant to dishonor the Christ at all! Later, in the 1500s, X enjoyed something of a revival when movable type began to be used- the Gutenberg and other presses, you know? Since every single letter of a document or page had to be carved out of wood or fashioned from rock or metal, it became desirable for printers, whenever possible, to shorten words, a kind of printed shorthand. There are many instances, for instance of the The Lord’s prayer and other familiar texts being printed without vowels to save tremendous labor.
How is X-M-A-S pronounced? It has always been pronounced “Christmas.” “Christmas” itself is a slightly shortened version of “Christ’s Mass”- Mass, a worship service.
X is NOT dishonoring. It is traditional. It does not make Christ any less holy than do the letters C H R I S T, which are also merely symbols that are used to communicate the person and office of Jesus the Christ.
But this is only one tiny however obvious element of faith that those who celebrate form over substance will quibble with. Words- the proper use of words seems to reign supreme in the religion of many. It is, after all, so much easier to talk about words, than it is to allow oneself to be transformed by the Word made flesh, and lying in a feed trough in a stable. It is so much easier to talk about how much you love Jesus than it is to do something, anything, sacrificially to help a neighbor in need.
“The War on Christmas” is another headline and argument that is evidence of the superficiality of the religion of many. “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” becomes the significant theological and spiritual benchmark as people seek to measure the “Christianity” of others.
Several years ago, a major Dallas Church established the Grinchalert. com website where people could tattle on various businesses that weren’t using the right words, the right holy-sounding words in the conduct of their business. Consumers could write into the site and express their outrage or pleasure over how they had been spoken to or how they felt while doing business. They could label their experiences as “Naughty” or “nice.”
I quote from the Dallas Morning News: “The comments come from not only Texas but nationwide. A resident in Tulsa commented that the city voted to change the name of its Christmas parade to Holiday Parade of Lights. So Tulsa’s on the naughty list.
So are Sears and K-Mart in Grand Junction, Colo., because employees say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” when selling Christmas trees.
Target made both the naughty and nice lists. One shopper disliked the lack of items with religious references to Christmas. [Naughty] But another shopper from Appleton, Wis., commented that Target displayed large “Merry Christmas” signs above the checkout lines.” [Nice]
Unquote. Oh my.
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
One might ask, “Where’s the love?” in such a website, such an outward, silly, potentially unfair, and distracting endeavor? And it’s a good question. My answer is that there is no love at all to be found, except for the veneer thin love of right-sounding words.
OK, so what is the substance of Xmas, then? If substance is far far far more important than form, what is the meaning, the substance, of Xmas?
The substance of Xmas is the same substance that should fill every day- Thanksgiving, The fourth of July, Labor Day, the first, second, and 83rd days of summer, Election Day, and our birthdays- all of them. The substance is the human manifestation of the divine, a manifestation which Jesus revealed, then went on to further reveal could be manifested in each person who followed him.
He was born a baby, not an angel. He grew up as a child, a child who had some inkling of his Father’s business, as he said, but as a child who played, laughed, depended on his parents, became an adult, and learned. Just like the rest of us. He had a job, observed all the outward forms of his Jewish faith- Bar Mitzvah, Sabbath prayers, Passover- and then, one day, after hearing the preaching of his cousin John the Baptist, woke up.
He awakened to his Christ-ness, his role, his full humanity and his full divinity. He fought that role in the wilderness, but overcame the very real opportunity he had to retreat into the easy and popular choices available to him. Instead, he moved into the world, for the world.
As the Apostle Paul would later write, day by day he took on the form of a servant, eventually becoming that highest form of a servant- one who washes feet- one who puts all others ahead of himself, one who would go so far as to serve a meal to his betrayers. And then beyond.
He called others to follow him, and frustrating as it must have been, he allowed them- his disciples- to keep following him even as they continually fell back into their own cultural biases of pride seeking, judgment, discrimination, and jealousy.
He reached through his own barriers of prejudice toward those who were unwanted, unlovable, and unknown to all but his father. He said, “Love God” and then showed those disciples how to do that by loving your neighbor in the same breath.
He scorned those who were obsessed with form: “You whitewashed tombs,” he called them, “so beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.” But he loved them anyway, even the ones who would try him, condemn him, nail him, stab him, taunt him, and be glad when he was finally dead so they could go home.
He died in perfect and ultimate servanthood.
That’s the substance.
X marks the spot. X is the mark on each of his disciples, imperfect though they and we are. X is our call to celebrate, not denigrate. X is our call to include, not separate. X is our reason for being, all the time. Not just for this season or any season.
So, Happy Holidays! And..
David Weber, November 26, 2012