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Is the Senate working during Christmas holidays sacrilegious?

Senators Kyl and DeMint claimed working up to the Christmas holiday defiles Christianity's holy day. But Jesus made clear that 'helping your neighbor' trumps 'keeping the Sabbath day holy.' Not addressing legislation to promote peace and care for others would be the real sacrilege.

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When Jesus’ hungry disciples plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, for example, Jesus responded to outraged observers by reminding them that a hungry King David once ate bread consecrated on the high altar. The followers of Jesus were likewise picking grain to preserve their own lives, something of even higher value to God than observing rules about sanctity. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of human beings, Jesus told his detractors, not the other way around (Mark 2: 26-27).

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On another occasion recorded in the Gospels, Jesus prepared to heal a man with a withered hand, although scribes and Pharisees stood watching closely, ready to condemn him for laboring on the Sabbath. Jesus healed the man after asking his opponents this leading question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9, NRSV) As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, the time is always right to do what is right.

When Jesus boils down his ethical teachings in the Gospels, it is consistently about caring for others. The Christian tradition bears out that people are always more important than rituals or holy days. Saint Augustine spoke often about the two-fold commandment of love for God and love for our neighbors, and he argued that we demonstrate our love of God most powerfully through loving our neighbors. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, remarked that “when a human act does not conform to the standard of love, then it is not right, nor good, nor perfect.”

And how can it be loving to fail to care for our neighbors because of Christmas?

No, holding Christmas sacred is less important than holding sacred the values that underlie it. For Christians, love and care for others are the primary values, and so complaints about being forced to debate and vote on legislation over Christmas thus seem specious. Christmas does represent a season in which we elevate our desires for peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, but still, for better or worse, politics is the means by which nations seek those goals.

Goodwill through legislation

Of the specific bills being considered this Christmas, the impulse behind the new START arms control treaty (supported, incidentally, by the last five Republican Secretaries of State) is to make the world more peaceful. And 9/11 first responders await the fate of a bill extending health care benefits and compensation to all those ill or injured because they tried to rescue others.

Whether or not these bills are perfect bills (and all legislation represents compromise), they constitute legislation that should be discussed, amended if necessary, and voted up or down, since this is what legislators do.

Although it is the holiday season, we are fighting two costly and devastating wars; Americans are still hungry, sick, and being turned out of their homes; our economy has yet to recover from the greatest economic collapse in half a century; those of us who are working, are working harder – including during the holidays.

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Jon Stewart argued repeatedly last week that to constantly invoke 9/11 without caring for the people who endured it is political theater (or hypocrisy). It might also be said that invoking the sanctity of Christmas without reckoning that the greatest sacrilege at Christmas is leaving people hungry, desperate, sick, or frightened is, likewise, bankrupt.

Christmas may be a holiday, and for many of us it is a holy day.

But people still got to eat.

Greg Garrett is a professor of English at Baylor University, an author of several books, and a columnist at Patheos. This article is part of the Patheos Expert Series at Reprinted with permission.

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