The Wonder and Paradox of Christmas
No one knows the exact day that Christ was born. It’s really not important. December 25th is the day that the Church has chosen to celebrate his coming. But we do know that the true meaning of Christmas has been under attack for quite some time now. I don’t want to rehearse the stuff about whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or whether or not public schools should sing Christmas carols. It does seem a bit hypocritical to me that we can use the word “Christmas” and sing the carols to draw big audiences and sell products in our culture, but to actually believe the story and the Bible from which it came is deemed somehow bigoted and uninformed. The limitations that the world imposes on the Gospel aren’t fair. But when has the world ever been a friend to God?
Let’s lay that aside. We get ourselves sometimes so worked up over the cultural battles that we can be distracted from noticing our own shortcomings as Christians. We like the warm feelings of Christmas. The words and sounds of the carols bring back wonderful memories. Seeing Mary and Joseph and the baby in the crèche reminds us of the “reason for the season.” But if we’re not careful, our “reason for the season” becomes the protection of our sentiments rather than a deep reflection on the wonder of the Incarnation and what response this day demands of us. We can be our own worst enemy by being content with just recapturing “that Christmas feeling.”
Christmas is disturbing. It should make us tremble with deep awe and wonder. I have a good friend who blogs several times a day. I really don’t know how he does it. And he is quite edgy in his topics. He’s no twenty-something radical pushing against his upbringing. He’s a sixty-something pastor who thinks and prays deeply about the things of the Lord. One of his blogs to day was called “Violent Night.” OK. That’s upsetting. But he’s right. Christmas was the day that God himself invaded Satan’s domain to engage the darkness in cosmic warfare. So much for warm, fuzzy feelings. Christmas has to be more than mere sentiment. Lawrence Hull Stookey insightfully observes:
Christmas commemorates the appearing of that Eternal Word in our midst. To settle for the romance of a displaced mother giving birth in a stable, to argue about how a virgin can conceive a child, is to bring profundity to the brink of ruin. Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited. Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin. Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God. God accepted death that the world might accept life. The Creator assumed temporality to redeem creation from futility.
Christmas is the hinge-point in history. It is when God became man to bring man back to himself. Jesus was not merely born – he was “sent” from God. Christmas was when the King came to be the Servant.
Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God and there were many who wanted to get in on his program. They were excited and they began to talk about what place in the hierarchy they would have when Jesus finally inaugurated the Kingdom. They were in for a surprise! Those who would be first would be last and those who would be last would be first. And then Jesus reminded them why he came: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus – the little baby in the manger – was born to die. He was born to save us.
Diane and I are fortunate this year. Our son, Wes, has come to share Christmas and spend a few days with us. Last night he and I watched “Les Miserables” (the musical) on DVD. I wanted to see it at home because when I saw it last year in the theater the guy behind me was talking and the guy across the aisle was loudly munching on his popcorn. Les Mis is a deeply moving story and I wanted to experience it again without the distractions. (I seem to fully engage myself emotionally into those kinds of movies.) The most profound moment in the film is when Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway bares her tortured soul in the song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Fantine’s life tragic. She had a child with a man who deserted her. She works in a factory to pay room, board, and care for the child. When she loses her job for unjust reasons, she is forced onto the streets and eventually prostitution to support her daughter. She has sold her beautiful hair and her body is wracked with tuberculosis. Her situation is truly pathetic. Symbolically, she sings her song from a coffin. I don’t know if there is a more profound moment in all of film history. I can’t think of one. For that performance, she won the Oscar last year.
"I Dreamed A Dream"
There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung
No wine untasted
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he'll come to me
That we'll live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed
There is hardly a better description of the broken world in which we live. Some of you have lived or are now living a similar hellish dream. Fantine was wrong. There was a ransom to be paid because we deeded the whole world over to Satan and the forces of darkness years ago in the garden.
But now, Christ has come. He was born to die – to give his life as a ransom for you and for me. You cannot separate the cradle from the cross. Let’s clear the fog away. Christmas is not about Hallmark moments, White Christmas, and religious sentiments. It’s about God becoming man to save you and me from the darkness and brokenness of life. So let’s not impoverish this day with just warm feelings and nothing more. Bow in wonder and awe. Most of all, believe and receive “this little child” as the Savior, born to die for you.