When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under… (Matthew 2:16)
By the time you read this article Christmas will be (mostly) over – the presents will have been opened, some of them have been put to use, or used up, or now ignored or even broken; the decorations will go back into their 11 month storage and we will be back to facing the cold, icy winds of January as our lives return to their normal routine. Things that we have put off “until after the holidays” will now need to be addressed and dealt with. Any other issues that we have been struggling with but had put aside briefly will now demand our attention. Christmas came – it left – and life is still the same.
The first Christmas was like that too. There came a time when the angels had disappeared from the sky, the shepherds when back to their flocks and their lives and while the Magi don’t show up until a little later (actually Monday this year!), nevertheless they only visit briefly and then leave and return home. Mary and Joseph are ultimately left with a baby to care for, and (according to the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew) the darkness of the Christmas experience itself is not only matched but perhaps surpassed by the fear, the terror, the hate and violence of what happens next. There is a military action, a security action ordered by Herod the Great – children are murdered and Joseph, Mary and the baby barely escape to Egypt in fear for Jesus’ life. This is all a part of the Christmas story, but not a part that we spend much time thinking about.
The fact is that Christmas is a dark story and at the same time the general celebration of Christmas has always tended to ignore that and to focus on joy and gladness! Even as far back as AD 742, St. Boniface complained that the way folks were celebrating Christmas was missing the point. And so it continues. Every year we roll out the jolly and push the darkness away – we focus on the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the glory, the joy, the sentimental and expect everyone else will do so as well. And when they don’t we accuse them of attacking the spirit of Christmas. (Exactly what does it mean to "keep Christ in Christmas?" - How is our yearly orgy of consumerism "keeping Christ in Christmas?") But perhaps we need to remove the log from our own eye and recognize that we ourselves are equally guilty of missing the point.
Maybe now that Christmas is over for another year we can take another look at the story and see it in all of its glory and darkness: see the oppression of the census, the difficulty of the journey, the rejection in Bethlehem, darkness and stench of the cave, the stench of the shepherds, the outcast status of the shepherds, the difficulty and pain of the birth itself in such an unfriendly environment, the fear and escape to Egypt, the violence aimed at defenseless little children, the bloodshed and violence. Why does this story have to have so much darkness? Because when we look at that baby laying in that manger we need to see Jesus on the cross. That is what Christmas is all about, friends. That is how we "keep Christ in Christmas" - we focus on the Cross! Because the cross is about God’s incredible and overwhelming love for us that leads God to enter into this incredibly and intensely dark, terrified and violent world in order to love. And this love is as intense as the darkness – more so, in fact, but if we minimize the darkness then we have trivialized what Christ has done for us. The lesson of Christmas is this – there is no darkness too dark, no fear too intense, no loss or grief too overwhelming for God. Through Christ God enters into all of our human experiences – even and especially the dark ones and brings light and life and love and grace.
I have been reading a wonderful book throughout this Christmas season called “Pastrix.” It is written by an ELCA pastor from Denver named Nadia Boltz-Weber. (The youth who went to New Orleans for the Youth Event will remember that she was one of the featured speakers). She is the pastor of a community that she started herself called The House for All Sinners and Saints. She is a colorful and somewhat controversial pastor, but I think she is terrific and the honesty and insight she shares in this book are amazing. I strongly recommend it – but be warned, it is not like any book you will have ever read by any other pastor. The language is a bit rough, but if you can get past that she has some profound and truly beautiful things to say. In one chapter she shares her experience working as a hospital chaplain. I, personally, found this chapter very moving, and I felt it resonated with my own chaplaincy experiences. I want to conclude this meditation by sharing a couple quotes from the end of that chapter (page 86).
She concludes the chapter (called “Clinical Pastoral Education”) by sharing a terrible experience of having to sit with two young children who had just lost their mother in a freak accident. As it happened it was Good Friday and still reeling from the experience she attended Good Friday services:
…When the reading of the passion began – the account in John’s Gospel of the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus – I listened with changed ears. I listened with the ears of someone who didn’t just admire and want to imitate Jesus, but had felt him present in the room where two motherless boys played on the floor.
I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’ last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share in our human story. Even the parts of the human story that are the most painful… God was not looking down on the cross, God was hanging from the cross. God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is…
… God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but instead, God is there in the … middle of it… There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus – Emmanuel – which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.
And now for your reading pleasure try these links - each one of these articles or sermons is outstanding and should be read and digested:
And to conclude the season - Nothing is more beautiful and profound than the Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach. Enjoy this performance from the 2012 Peoria Bach Festival with the owner and author of this blog playing 2nd Oboe D'Amore (and the echo oboe in Cantata #4). Enjoy and have a blessed 2014.