There have been trees and displays of lights at homes, with nativities and candles and all manner of festive decor.
There have been exuberant displays to mark the ‘Happy Holidays’, whatever they are, neutered of any reference to the Christians’ celebrations, but reserving the right to make merry nonetheless.
There have been sales piled on sales, packed parking lots at big box stores and shopping malls.
There has been an unending stream of Christmas music bombarding our ears in stores, on radios, in homes, all conspiring to set the holiday mood or induce us to shop and buy, or rather conspiring to blur the difference.
There has been a raft of holiday gatherings with holiday foods and holiday drinks and holiday attire, events at work, at church, at neighbors’ and friends’ homes and even our own. And the same white elephant gifts just keep circulating.
And tonight on Christmas eve, special church programs everywhere, replete with darling children singing, or trying to sing, well-known Christmas songs, as well as the standard go-to carols for such services, replete with homily and the necessary conclusion involving ‘Silent Night’ and everybody lighting their candle and holding it aloft.
Jesus was born into this sort of world.
But it is useful to remember that Jesus was also born into a world that had rudimentary if any medical care.
Jesus was born into a world where a woman in labor might be shown a stable or a cave in which to give birth.
Jesus was born into a world where a paranoid ruler might send a detachment of soldiers into the small town where he spent his first days and murder every boychild under two.
As we busily endeavor to recreate the Currier and Ives Christmas of our fantasy, it is helpful to be reminded that such bears little resemblance of that first Christmas, or of the meaning of Christmas since.
For the meaning of Christmas is not trees, or presents, or shopping, or peppermint lattes, or church services or holiday gatherings. Instead, the prophet Isaiah said simply to Ahaz the king (and to us), ‘The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel’, which means, ‘God with us.’ (Isaiah 7:15) And the Lord said to Joseph in a dream, ‘Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sin.’ (Matthew 1:20-21)
This is our world, where horrific ethnic violence is slaughtering thousands in South Sudan, where murderous sectarian civil war is destroying lives and communities in Syria, where senseless gun violence in our own country takes the lives of tens of thousands every year, where brokenness and divorce cleave half the homes of even Christians, where in so many places corruption is the way of life and where justice is an impossible dream, where most of the planet’s resources and riches are hoarded by a tiny circle of men and women, whereas the majority of the world’s men and women have next to nothing and next to no hope of making a better life for themselves or their children, where all of us, wealthy or poor, comfortable or hungry, sitting in offices of the powerful or scavenging the mountains of refuse at the city’s dump for something to eat and something to sell, all of us are being stalked by death, every life however grand or mean will come to an end and all of our pomposities and dreams and accumulations will return to the dust from which we came. This is the world that Jesus was born into. And this is why he was born into it.
He embraces our humanity and becomes one with us, One of us. He does not shy away from the evil that scars our lives, that mars our race. Instead he thrusts himself into our midst, he comes not to destroy us in a fit of justice, but to heal us from the poison of sin that courses through our veins and corrodes all our relationships. He shows us love by living it, he shows us reconciliation by forgiving, he demonstrates peace by making all things new.
It’s a Mystery that my mind cannot contain or comprehend. The same Mystery that grew in the virgin’s womb. The same Mystery that slept in the hay trough. The same Mystery that changed water to wine, gave blind men their sight, made lepers whole and clean, cast out devils from the possessed and raised the dead. The same Mystery that died on a Roman implement of torture and execution. The same Mystery that vacated Hades and allowed Thomas to touch the nail marks and spear wound in his side. The same Mystery that says to me and you, ‘Follow Me, deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Me.’
I learned this past year that the hardest part of running, of training for a Marathon, indeed of the Marathon itself, is that first step to get up off the couch and get myself out the door to go running.
Christmas is that first step. This is why I celebrate.