A “theodicy” is an attempt to justify the ways of God; that is, how can God be all good and all powerful, and yet great evil exist, the innocent suffer, babies be killed? Such questions were in the air at the time the angel appeared to Mary: for the people of God, having been exiled to Babylon some 500 years earlier, nonetheless saw themselves as still in exile, even though they were back in their homeland. For ever since coming home, they had been trounced upon by super-power after super-power. Had their geographical exile itself not been sufficient punishment for their sins? Then why the continued anguish, the continued stupidity of the way in which empire and power and wealth corrupted and oppressed?
The Jews and early Christians often dealt with these questions in a manner different than the Greeks and Romans. In many pagan religions, the deities were far-off “gods” who could feel no pain, and their will was equated with the agenda of the rulers. In contrast, the wretched Hebrew slaves had the audacity to say that God intimately knew their suffering, and was on their side. When the Jews would go into exile, one of the prophets proclaimed that God, too, goes into exile. Christmas is thus one more magnificent, unexpected chapter in the unfolding of that story: God now enfleshed, God given birth, God in a manger—not far off, but acquainted with our infirmity. This was risky business: for Pharaohs and Herods, like all great empires, kill babies when their power is threatened.
The ironies inherent in our celebration of this story are obviously great. There are the numbers: last year, American consumers spent over 400 billion on Christmas; while some estimate $10-30 billion would provide clean drinking water for the 1.1 billion people in the world without it. And there are the anecdotes: a Wal-Mart greeter trampled to death on Black Friday. A Black Friday indeed—a dark Friday of consumption, like a pagan celebration, which our addicted economic gods need to survive.
Quite a different sort of Friday than the Good Friday that lay beyond the manger. As Bonhoeffer said, the two places that powers least want to visit are the manger and the cross. But it is in manger and cross that a revolutionary revolution occurs: and perhaps even in the midst of the sentiment and glitz that surrounds the season, we can still hear tokens of the melody of that revolution.