Merry Christmas 2008
Seeing things from the ground up gives life a very different perspective. It’s a small view of a big world, one with a sense of simplicity and permanence.
Elderly people seem to be as they have always been and will always remain: old. Unlike those who are worn by years and sliding down the other side of a life span, children feel time pass with the velocity of a snail scaling Mt. Everest. Summer seems as though it will never come, the bell for recess seems stuck on disability, Saturday is a tantalizing illusion that always seems just out of reach, and a birthday’s arrival takes forever. It’s another world entirely.
For us grownups, memories time has not erased still linger near the surface. We can easily recall the immature anxieties that held us in their perpetual grip—the very stuff of life for little tykes. And the most interminable wait of a young life was, without question, the span of time between January 1 and next December 25. Disappointment over not having received the gift of choice on the big day could be assuaged by the hope that, with enough hints and good behavior, the error in selection by parents (or you know who) could be rectified next time around.
In retrospect, however, we small fry had little to do with the selection process. In my day, parents had enough trouble just keeping food on the table and decent clothing on their children. For my two brothers and me, Christmas Eve was the crown jewel of the season. We were loaded up in the Dodge and driven into our small town on icy streets, then shooed away from the immediate proximity of the five-and-dime while the purchases were being made. The trip home meant a stop at the outdoor Christmas-tree emporium where spruces and pines, mere hours away from sliding into obsolescence, could be had at bargain prices.
Christmas Day was like all other Christmas Days, with small mountains of wrinkled wrapping paper, shiny objects, puzzles, and practical necessities disguised as gifts of the season. Afternoons brought in the relatives, and cousins flashed acquisitions they considered a cut above what they saw on the living room floor.
At church there were the ritual cantatas and always a play produced by adults and performed by a troop of would-be child thespians regaled in old bath robes, turbans woven out of terry cloth towels, or scarves long enough to make the circuit around the head. The scenario was always the same: Mary and Joseph, the swaddled doll in a rustic manger, wise men from the East, and a cast of make-believe shepherds sitting cross-legged on the floor with no speaking parts.
After the congregation finished singing “Joy to the World” and began to exit the auditorium, we children often received a small bag of hard candy and sometimes an orange—which was a mistake because it caused everything to stick together in a finger-gluing mass that thwarted the donor’s good intentions.
Elements and Essence
Although we could discuss Christmas in terms of commercialism, covetousness, envy, misplaced emphasis, and the like, only two aspects of the holiday are of any real significance: elements and essence.
The elements, though perhaps somewhat obscured, are the anticipation of a great event, the giving of gifts, the receiving of undeserved demonstrations of benevolence proving that someone loves you (or at least cares), and the unifying aspect of a season of celebration quite unlike any other.
The essence of Christmas extends far beyond the dimensions of a calendar year. It even transcends time and delivers a drama only deity could produce. The tragedy of our day is our failure to transmit the essence of the miracle of the Incarnation as the heart and soul of what we pause to commemorate.
Unfortunately, modern society’s comprehension of this singular event seems to be buried somewhere in that pile of wrinkled wrapping paper on the living room floor. That may well be what the commercialization and diminution of the Messiah’s grand entrance has been reduced to; but beyond the world’s stunted spiritual understanding, the fact of it endures. God acted in a way only He could foreknow. And He had weighed both its cost and consequence before He hung the world in place:
He [Jesus the Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:15–17, 19-20).
Think of it. A teenaged virgin in Nazareth—such a backwater village that the great sages of her day avoided it—heard from the heavenly herald:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:30–33).
Comprehend it? No. Accept it? Yes! Every word. Why? Because of the facts in the case and the benefits accrued to every believer the world over for two millennia and more.
Think again of the essence of the Incarnation. There is a universal, human need for peace. Most people long for some intervention to assure them there is more to life than what they see and more than what 19th-century English poet William Ernest Henley saw when he wrote Invictus, his poetic diatribe of defiance:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears/Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years/Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.
With all deference to Mr. Henley and his agnostic friends, their assessment of how straight the gate or how charged with punishments the scroll does not alter the facts. One of the greatest follies of our increasingly decadent society is the belief there are no absolutes and that everything conceived for self-gratification is legitimate. Such thinking is the fruit of the pseudotheological situation ethics of the ’60s. However, there is an appointment we all must keep: “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Humanity cannot dictate the terms of this universal appointment. And only divine intervention provided the justification and liberation that today are available to all who will receive them. They came to us by way of an event transmitting the absolute wonder of the plan only God could conceive or communicate: the Incarnation:
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:8–12).
Conveyed within this declaration is the supreme embodiment of the eternal essence of giving and receiving. Furthermore, it reflects the revelation that there is, beyond all human comprehension, One who loves and cares for the undeserving and extends a full measure of benevolence that has no expiration date.
Once upon a time, we sang a simple melody that commemorated a simple message: “He’s filling up heaven with sinners.” That’s the story. The proof of it is confirmed in Scripture and witnessed by the millions who have become beneficiaries of His gift through the centuries.
It’s a story that never grows old with the telling, and it is good for us to stop and celebrate this best of all messages ever committed to us and our posterity. To attempt to deny or trivialize what took place in the little hamlet of Bethlehem in Judea on that faithful night more than 2,000 years ago insults the Lord who stooped to save us. This is why we must never get so taken up with the elements of the season that we lose sight of the essence and glory of what has come to us in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
Let me tell you a wonderful Christmas story that says a great deal.
Tommy was the local blacksmith in a small town in Virginia. He was also the certified town drunk. Among church folk, Tommy was seen as a hard case at best and incorrigible at worst. His answer to those inquiring about his spiritual condition was always, “When I decide to change my life and get better, you’ll see me at church.”
One day the pastor received word that 66-year-old Tommy wanted a visit. His message for the preacher was succinct: “The harder I try to do better, the worse I get. I can’t do it by myself. I want to be saved.”
After the pastor patiently explained the way of salvation, Tommy got saved then and there. And for the rest of his days, he lived an exemplary Christian life and, yes, was at church every Sunday.
The first Christmas service after his conversion, Tommy called the pastor aside. “Preacher,” he confided, “this is the first Christmas I can fully remember since I was little more than a boy, and I can only thank the Lord for it.”
The joy of Tommy’s Christmas declaration expresses the eternal reality that became possible because of what took place in little Bethlehem the night the angels sang. Justification and liberation, full and free.