The Seriousness Behind Santa
The Most Wonderful Day of the Year
What is rarely mentioned (and when it is, usually only in passing) about the birth of Jesus is the "massacre of the infants." That is, the political assassinations of the firstborn of the Jews by the monarch at the beginning of the Common or Christian Era, Herod I, who perceived the prophesied arrival of a newborn king as a threat to his regime. So he ordered his troops to kill any male Jew baby born while the big star was rising. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped to Egypt, the Gospel according to Matthew tells us. Matthew also cites Jeremiah about this bloody affair: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." A prequel to the Holocaust?
In the surpassing sweetness of this season we tend to forget that the baby lying in the manger comes, by God, to attend to some very serious business: to right a world full of wrong.
Set aside all of the preacherly talk about sin and evil and wickedness. Just listen to Satchmo sing, "What a Wonderful World." That tune has achieved the status of a secular hymn. It brings a lump to my throat every time that guttural voice of Louis Armstrong croons: "I hear babies cry... I watch them grow... They'll learn much more... than I'll ever know... And I think to myself... what a wonderful world." Unless you're acquainted with Brother Louis' biography, you'll miss the big Nevertheless hiding in this song. That he was the child of a teenage New Orleans prostitute. That he was so poor he sometimes had to scavenge for food in garbage cans. That he spent two teenage years in reform school, the Colored Waif's Home for Boys. And that throughout his life, despite his fame and fortune, he had to deal with racial bigotry. What a wonderful world, indeed!
I, a child of a middle class suburban family, Bobby Howard, who always had food on my plate and a roof over my head, can barely begin to understand the shadow over those words, "what a wonderful world," on the lips of Louis Armstrong. Put the birth of Jesus into Satchmo's context, that this wondrous thing entering the world, this bright hope, the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the world, whose reign ushers in a new day of the brotherhood of the beast, lion and lamb together, yes, yes, great good news for everyone, God bless us all, this wonderful world... has a cross looming over it, the means by which the wrong is made right.
Let Louis say Amen.
George Bailey too. You remember him. He's the main character in that seasonal staple by film director Frank Capra, "It's a Wonderful Life." The central theme of the movie is the difference one life can make in the world. The sub-text suggests that life in a small town has its seamy underside: larceny, alcoholism, greed, sexual misdeeds, and, not the least, George's own self-pitying inclination to suicide. It's a wonderful life, indeed!
Bedford Falls, George's hometown, Capra's stand-in for the real world, where the guardian angel comes without wings, has plenty of wrongs that need righting. Would that they could be tied up in a neat Christmas bow of red the way they are in the movie. Those of us who have lived long enough and lived those years in reflection on the world's cruelties and one's own frailties, we long for a solution as direct and happy as the one angel Clarence devises. I have found myself as the credits roll at the end of the movie thinking to myself, "How beautiful... if only it were that simple." A sentiment not unfamiliar to me when attending re-creations of the Nativity in sermon, pageant, and Christmas Eve services, and hearing about the little baby who would change the world... a sentiment saved from irrelevancy by the shadow of a cross hanging high above the chancel beneath which the crèche is displayed.
Were the unidentified churchmen who devise the lectionary to ask my advice (and they won't), I would encourage them to list as the epistle reading for one of the Sundays in Advent Romans 8:18-28. Then with a little coaxing I might get to hear a sermon on verses 22 and 23, for Louis and George (Ebenezer and Bob too): "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves."
Christmas celebrates the birth of the savior of the world... and, by God, do we ever need one.