Savior of the Nations, Christmas for the Heathens!
In Catalonia, children usher in the Christmas season, with all its trimmings, lights, packages and treats, by celebrating with the poop log which defecates candy in front of the fire. Yes. The poop log might not be the grandest of traditions or held in the same esteem as say, a midnight mass or the care given to making Christmas dinner, but the poop log, or Tio de Nadal, is a tradition nonetheless.
It is composed of a hollowed out log with a face on one end, sticks for legs, and perhaps a blanket or scarf. It is summarily whacked while the children sing:
Hazelnuts and Mato (cheese)
If you don’t poop well
I’ll hit you with a stick
At this point, like a piñata, said candies and cheese come tumbling out of the back of the hollowed out log. If you find this whole exercise amusing, be careful how loud you laugh, especially if you happen to celebrate the nativity by putting chocolates in old socks hanging in front of the fireplace. How often do we wrap up the holidays in traditions ranging from the silly to absurd, and how often do we exchange a truly universal celebration like the Nativity with culturally tamed morality tales and milquetoast winter goodwill? Mind you; I don’t mind the Icelandic tradition of the Yule Cat, who brings hard-working children a new set of clothes but threatens to eat those boys and girls he finds dilly-dallying. Gleôileg jól! (that’s Merry Christmas in Icelandic).
Regardless of whether we love or hate these peculiar traditions, each of them only masks the real scandal of Christmas; the scandal that the creator of the universe would become a particular person, and not just for one group, but for all nations. The incarnation was universal, irrespective of nationality, race, or even Christmas tradition. The message of Christmas, as St. Paul reminds us, is that no country or people hold favored nation-status with God. In his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has torn the veil between all peoples and traditions. Our own traditions, from the Elf on the Shelf to the Tio de Nadal might bring some Christmas cheer, but if that’s all the season brings us, December 26th is a cold dark day.
We sing these great truths, of a Savior for all people, when we sing the familiar hymn “Jesus, Savior of the Nations.” This hymn was originally penned by St. Ambrose sometime in the 4th century, in Latin as, Veni, Redemptor Gentium. Later, during the Reformation, Martin Luther would adapt it into German as, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” Both Ambrose’s Gentium, from which we get “Gentiles” and Luther’s “der Heiden,” or “the heathen" draw out this universal Christmas message by stressing that this is a Savior for the Gentiles, for the heathen, for the outsider.
Savior of the nations, come;
Virgin’s Song, here make thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
“That the Lord chose such a birth” — the creator of the world lay in a mean estate, as a baby, born in a barn outside a remote Middle Eastern village in order for Him to also be the re-creator of the world. That this Savior would be born in a manger is only the beginning. At his presentation at the temple eight days after his birth, the aged Simeon prophesied of the babe:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
This "light for revelation to the Gentiles” has not only called us out of our nationalistic religions and traditions but has previewed the recreation of the whole world with this new nation. A nation made up from a people that were not previously a people; a nation of Gentiles and heathens.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10).
God has no favored nation status among the earthly kingdoms, nor preferred traditions (in fact, Jesus has a few things to say about empty traditions, see Matthew 23:13f as an example). How often has the great scandal been rejected in favor of a regional Savior? How often do we assume the traditions with which we might mark the year and offer thanks are the only way? I’m not attempting a pious-but-Grinch-like move wherein I now proclaim all traditions to be idolatry. The freedom that comes to us in the Gospel assumes that holiday rituals can range from the sublimely mystical to the absurd. The Savior of the nations is bigger than that and is calling us all to a new nation in a new heavens and earth. In Him who is indeed the Savior of the nations, all things are restored, and Christmas is brought to all, even to the heathens!