Putting Jesus in Christmas
Putting Jesus in Christmas
You read it right. I wrote it the way I mean it. Let others worry about putting Christ in Christmas. I detect a greater necessity: finding the humanity of God in Bethlehem.
Our typical strategy when telling the story of Jesus' birth overwhelms with dramatic and fantastical detail the good news of Christmas; namely, that God is among us as one of us.
"The Incarnation" theologians name the event; and that, the word Incarnation, is one of those Latinate terms that starts the pew yawning. Spanish-speakers should have a better feel for the word... or I don't know my chili con carne. Christmas is the fleshing of God, when the immortal, ineffable, and invisible, after gestating for nine months in a mother's womb, issues like every one of us, amid blood and water, a tiny baby. Jesus.
We move in this season too quickly from the birthing stable to a star, angelic choruses, and magi. I know, I know, I am the last one in the pulpit with any right to complain. That place for publishing Good News (the pulpit) suffers from the same necessity as the 24/7 news media. Preachers have got to have something to say, preferably something different each seventh day; or, at least, something with a different twist. In Christmases past I've celebrated in sermon the glorious particulars of Jesus' birth. I've switched on a spotlight outside a stained glass window to suggest an angel visitant. I've played King Melchoir and distributed golden tinfoil-wrapped chocolate coins. I've recounted the Hayden Planetarium's version of the star of the east. And I would do it all over again... happily... and in a Santa's hat.
As long as listeners understand that I understand that these details are tinsel on the tree, adornments, not the flesh of the matter.
Our intent in tinseling Christmas is transparent. And innocently subversive. We do it to all our heroes, make them ten feet tall, repeat legends of their derring-do. With Jesus, the hero of heroes, we trumpet those details which hint that the baby, if God's humanity, is also God's divinity. Like the virgin birth, listed in the Apostle's Creed as an article of faith as much to insist on his being born of a woman (not, for instance, from an oak tree or a god from Mt. Olympus) as for being a holy anomaly.
We look for signs that the baby really isn't like the rest of us in our frailty and human limitations, that if he wanted to he could rise up like the baby Kal-El (AKA Clark Kent) and vanquish the hosts of evil by the power of his will and might. Or, to choose another comparison for God incognito, we change the swaddling cloths into ermine robes for the prince of heaven, like many a Renaissance painter, as if God incarnate for a moment and a moment only went slumming among the likes of us. That is, we conspire at Christmas to accent the divinity and eliminate the humanity of Jesus.
Which, looking for signs, is to deny the plain command of the grown-up Jesus. He warns us that there is no sign - no sign of his place in the Godhead or the presence of the kingdom of God on earth - save the sign of Jonah. And what's the sign of Jonah? you ask... and if you don't, I shall. It's the preaching of repentance. Like John the Baptist. Like Jesus. Like generations of witnesses in their train who have summoned us to acknowledge, regret, and make up for the evil we do to each other and our earthly home. Humility, friends, is the surest sign of divinity. Like a baby birthed in a barn?
Oh, it's so hard to digest! We want flash, dash, and fireworks and God gives us a baby, one of us, one with us, subject no less than we are to the exigencies of this mortal life.
Such is God's strategy for our salvation: to walk our walk, show us how in person, not just sending thunderbolt commandments down from on high. With us. Here. As if to prove the greatness and the goodness of which this flesh is capable. Sure, that baby is subject as we are to the treacheries of kings; the misguided, if well-meaning, notions of friends; vulnerable to acts of God/nature; and driven from within by the same needs of body and spirit as you and I. Jesus. Walking on water wows the crowd but persuading human beings to turn the other cheek, now that would be the miracle of miracles; and it is what he is born for. Feeding the multitudes with a few fish and some loaves of bread resonates through the ages, but convincing human beings to feed a hungry enemy and share the wealth, going against every selfish grain within us, that is what he is born for. Healing lepers is a gracious feat of Godly mercy, especially for those healed, but, as the Galilean rabbi implied thirty-three years after Bethlehem, the greater feat is forgiving sin (especially when you are the one who is doing the forgiving); and that (forgiveness) is what he is born for.
At the Family-oriented Christmas Eve service in years past I played a game with the children. Like Where's Waldo, only this game asked, "Where's Baby Jesus?" A crèche on a table in the middle of the chancel featured ceramics of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the three kings (yellow, brown, and white), with a shining star attached to the outside of the stable. But no baby in swaddling cloths. I had fun dreaming up places to hide the infant. Under the tree, gift-wrapped, as God's gift to us. Behind the open Bible on the communion table (because Jesus is the Word of God). In the box of chocolate kisses I planned to distribute with a Merry Christmas at the door following the service (because Jesus is God's sweetness). But my most inspired hiding place, and the truest, was in the arms of a child accomplice, because Jesus is among us and with us as one of us.
Go ahead, listen to the angels sing. Watch the wise men's camels lurch toward Bethlehem. Follow the star across the heavens to its station above a barn. But let these dramatic diversions serve to focus your mind and heart on what Christmas is all about: God becoming one of us, to bless, to inspire, to en-grace this very mortal life we live. Jesus, our Emmanuel. The universe no longer is a lonely place. In our sorrows and our celebrations (and in our temptation to moral weakness) we have heaven's companionship. On earth. God knows... really, truly knows.