Where to Find Jesus at Christmas
Friends, get over it.
Look beyond and beneath the appeals to our baser instincts in Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and stores' midnight openings. More to the point, think beyond and beneath the ecclesiastical appeals to your "higher" instincts to be still and spiritual in this merry season, and thereby, so goes the reasoning, perhaps, maybe, we wish, possibly, know thy God.
As if the life around us is the biggest impediment to a true Christmas celebration.
When, in fact, Bethlehem celebrates the eternal's entry into time with all of time's stupidities, wonder, pettiness, grandeur, violence, gentleness, harmony, dissonance... well, you get the point: the life in which we are all immersed. Christ comes, in the plainest words, not to make us holy, but to make us human.
And there's nothing quite as human as silliness. Take, for example, this season's elevation of nutcrackers. We have a pair of them, nearly life-sized, garishly painted, secured to the lawn with wooden spikes. Thank you, Pyotr Ilych, for making them ubiquitous at Christmas. All the nuts I snack on come with the shells already removed. Cashews are my favorite. I couldn't tell you what a cashew shell looks like... or if there is such a thing. But I shall be downright disappointed if December 25th arrives and no one favors Poppy with a can of cashews. But there's nothing in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John about such presents; and I have little use for myrrh and frankincense. Nor, for that matter, is there very much in the Gospel about tuning out the busy (often silly) world and meditating.
It is, after all, for this same cruel and killing world God gave an only son.
Go ahead, hang the pet dog's stocking by the fireside with care. Sing another chorus of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Wear a Santa hat to midnight mass. Adorn your front bumper with a wreath and antlers. Add an extra jigger of rum to the eggnog. Decorate your tree with bulbs of your favorite Yankees. 'Tis the season for figgy pudding... and harmless nonsense. Good cheer is just the lighter side of joy.
Not that Jesus' birth is all fun and games. Far from it. The shadow of the cross darkens Bethlehem. Soldiers maraud in search of him. Hotels are shuttered against his occupancy. When this world isn't hostile toward him, it is indifferent. Still he comes, the light that cannot be quenched.
He comes to make us human, according to the design worked on the sixth day of creation, only better, far better. Back then, in the Eden of God's mind, the two great commandments were implicit. Now they would be incarnated. The first, loving God with everything you are, it goes without additional saying, issues at the manger with "the radiant beams of thy holy face." The second, the one about loving the neighbor as oneself, awaits its fulfillment in thirty-three years of living. And there, in that humanity, is the meaning of Christmas.
To which the world, that world that alternates between hostility and indifference, tends in December. I really don't expect it to be converted... ever! But I do rejoice and have rejoiced for my entire adult life at the obligatory kindness of the season. How Marines and bank CEO's and bar owners across the land urge us to drop a toy in the box for a needy child. How strangers accustomed to passing one another without making eye contact smile a Merry Christmas or Season's Greetings in every direction. How my Jewish neighbors tempt me to reprise Tevye's "Idle-diddle-daidle-daidle man" (someone out there may remember my solo) when they tell me they know the words to "Silent Night." How offering plates, food pantries for the poor, feeders for the birds of the air, red kettles surrounded by blue uniforms, and charities' annual budget drives overflow like Psalm 23's cup. Generosity, that most endearing and ennobling of human qualities, flourishes as the bright star in the eastern sky rises. Christmas makes us do it. Let the half-empty glass crowd bemoan January's return to stinginess. As they say in politics, "don't make the perfect the enemy of the good." Jesus comes to make us human, and if that mission is popular for just a season, then "Hallelujah!" But you, my friends and friends of Jesus, make it last in you a lifetime.
For God so loved the world, he gave...
The Christian narrative begins with God's creating the world for love and joy (Thank you, C. S. Lewis). But something went terribly wrong, the evidence for which can be read daily in the headlines of the newspapers. What was meant to be totally harmonious and exhilarating devolves into bloodshed and sorrow. At this nadir, the Bible suggests, the creator had misgivings about what had been created. To destroy or not to destroy, that was the big question, to which heaven's first reply was a rainbow and a dove alighting with an olive branch in its beak. If matters then did not go entirely from bad to worse, they didn't much improve. God had a better idea. God would come in person, show us how, and infect the world with the glad contagion of grace. That is, God decides on re-creation. The rejecting world was not rejected, but set on a course of redemption. Being human is given a second birth. Mary bears Jesus at Bethlehem.
What is there about him that is so compelling? No, I don't buy all that fundamentalist baloney about his power. Nor do I try to follow him because of his constancy in spiritual practices. And please, please, don't try to recommend him to me as a cultural or political revolutionary. What I find compelling is his humanity. How he engages everyone who comes near him, not to convert them or lecture them or show them how wonderful he is. Jesus listens. And Jesus hears, not just the words, but the murmurs of the heart, the yearnings and the cravings. Think of Zacchaeus, the woman with the flow of blood, the rich young man, the sinner woman, the band of lepers, etc. My dearest friend in all the world has heard me respond when I'm offered advice about my bitching, "I don't want advice; I want sympathy." That's the Jesus in my mind and heart's eye, the one who embraces the noise of my complaining without offering a sermon on how to get over it. The One who embraces me anyway.
A long time ago, a long, long time ago, I found myself in a very difficult place. I was sent packing when I crossed the wrong guy in the congregation where I was a mere student assistant minister. No need to rehearse chapter and verse. I took my sorry tale (tail?) to a professor whom I very much admired. He heard me out. Then he offered me one piece of wisdom, which in these latter days might go under the heading WWJD: Jesus never felt sorry for himself. OK, there is the cry of desolation on the cross; but that last word Jesus borrowed from the Psalmist to insist on his solidarity with us in our despair. I left the professor's study with the clear message that self-pity is unacceptable to Jesus... and in those who would have, as I dearly wanted to have in me, the mind of Christ. 75% of the world's troubles begin in the craven longings of those who think, for whatever reason, that they always get the short end of the stick. The kingdom would soon come were they and we to follow in the footsteps and brave mind-routes of Jesus. And peace would break out around the globe.
We are drawn to Jesus for the magnanimous humanity of his soul. He enters into our lives without reservation... even to suffering the cross of hatred and our death.
Yeah, you're right, I've gone from the ridiculous to the sublime in a few paragraphs. The connecting thread, however, is the soundest of Christian doctrines, that Jesus, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, is truly God. He is also and supremely (for me, anyway) truly human. Faith serves us best when we use a lifetime to trace the full measure of that humanity... and do it in ourselves.