The Cross is Reality
The Cross Is Reality... at Christmas Too
Once upon a long time ago my preaching professor opined (and repeated) that the response we should covet for our pulpit presentations is not "I wish it were true"; but, far better, "It's true and I wish it weren't." I wasn't sure then, or for a long time after, precisely what Dr. Scherer meant. In the light of nearly sixty Christmases since I first heard the good doctor deliver that observation, I think I now understand.
Christmas seems to invite sloppy theology.
Most of us go ga-ga over babies: I've watched from the pulpit with dismay scores of times when a congregant in the middle of the sermon is distracted by a mewling infant and cannot restrain the felt necessity of smiling in the child's direction. Mea culpa! I have aided and abetted this sentimentality in this season by playing hide and seek with a ceramic baby Jesus, and where on earth and in church he could be if not in the manger in the creche. The game sure keeps children of all ages listening to the guy in the robe.
Then there's the oft-repeated angels' song about peace on earth. Oh, how we long for it, peace... for thousands of years. Would that this child of Mary and Joseph, the veritable Prince of Peace, would with a wave of his tiny but powerful hand establish the harmonious world order of which we humans seem incapable. I wish it could be. Don't you?
And there's "Silent Night," and the preacher who doesn't schedule it to be sung Christmas Eve by candlelight will find coal in his stocking the following morning and soon be looking for another pulpit. As it's sung in the flickering light of the midnight hour I've watched macho men trickle a tear down their cheeks for the wonderfulness of it all. That somehow a mother's tenderness and a little child's vulnerability sum up the love of God even as it summons up memories of the way we were in the cradle of our mother's embrace. And whatever the hurt abroad in the land, all's right with the world. I wish it were so. Don't you?
The trouble is the Bible gets in the way of Christmas without the cross. By the cross I mean a Gospel full of many meanings, but in this context I mean mostly the brokenness of this mortal life. Take, for example, the lection for the second Sunday in Lent, from Matthew 3, about John the Baptist, that thorny prophet heralding the arrival of the messiah. John is unimpressed with the sighs of spiritual sorrow of the self-righteous souls who present themselves to him. He demands from them something more than "sorry," branding them "a brood of vipers." Is that, I ask you, any way, especially at Christmas with a nave full of "C and E" Christians, to build up a congregation? I was going to say I cannot imagine Jesus behaving like John, except I seem to recall a similar situation in which the Galilean rabbi found himself and he applied a similar epithet to those whom he suspected of half-hearted repentance. The word? Hypocrites. John and Jesus do not trade in sentimentalism about sin and our inclination to it, even by candlelight. I wish it weren't so, but it is.
Nor is there any escape from the hard truth about the world by going to the manger. King Herod's SS troopers prowl the countryside that first Christmas season, in a search and destroy mission for any Jewish boy recently born. The Magnificat Mary sings contains a couple of stern warnings, that the high and mighty will be brought low and the rich will be sent away empty. The Gospel according to John, bereft of star, manger, and magi, has its version of the nativity, according to which the Light of the world (think Jesus), in whom everything that is was made, isn't welcomed by very many of us and is, for the most part, ignored as irrelevant. I wish it weren't so, but it is.
Or the carols we love to sing in December: the cross insinuates itself into them, God save us!, again and again. "No more let sins and sorrow grow, Or thorns infest the ground." "Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume, Breathes a life of gathering gloom, Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb." "God rest ye merry, gentleman, Let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ our Savior Was born on Christmas Day; To save us all from Satan's power When we were gone astray." And, speaking of the world's brokenness, who can forget "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"? I wish it weren't so, but it is.
I give the last verse to the German carol, In Dulci Jubilo, now renamed for this enlightened age as "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice": it reminds us, looking as we do mistily at the baby in Mary's arms, "Jesus Christ was born to save."
Everything else about Bethlehem is secondary. Beautiful, yes. Heart-warming and sweet tear provoking, of course. A story to inspire thousands of others? Sure. But it's the cross, far more and no less than those two crossed beams of wood on Calvary, for which that baby is born.
A world continually convulsed by violence, most of it humanly inspired, the consequence of something deep inside the genes, an insistence on self above all else and to hell with anyone who gets in the way, justifying it usually as necessary and inevitable: Christ was born for this, to show us the way and provide us with the courage (yes, that's the proper word!) to walk second miles, turn other cheeks, and, God help us, love our enemies. The "Spartacus" series on TV, with its slavery, killing games, and crucifixes, may not be the most accurate history of the Roman Empire, but, considering the recorded excesses of the Caesars (one of whom is named in the narrative of the Nativity) one may fairly assume that the bloodthirst of our race owns an ancient heritage. The cross is God's response to that evil and God's design to vanquish it. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
A world full of hurt, where hurricanes ravish the shorelines and those who live nearby; where birth defects scar and limit the least of these our children, and medical genius, for all its miraculous successes, still has far to go; where psychopathic episodes erupt and kill; where momentary lapses in judgment result in lifelong injuries; where the economy falters, jobs are lost, and families seem to have nowhere to turn; where, in other words, things far beyond our control happen, happen!: Christ was born for this, to show us the way and provide us with the compassion to embrace a broken world and broken souls, if to make us generous (to a fault), then to infiltrate an indifferent world with hospitals and homes and agencies of help and healing, through which the brokenness can be mended and lives rehabilitated. In the western world surely, and maybe far beyond, a direct line can be traced from the Galilean rabbi, sometimes named The Great Physician, to these institutions of compassion. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
A dying world, and no one escapes, "iron men" not exempted, and my how the accumulation of years impresses anyone with the certainty of tax's twin, as eyes, ears, and feet fail just a little more slowly than the family car; some of us succumbing before breath gives out, lapsing into a twilight bereft of sense and sensibility: Christ was born for this, to show us the way and provide us with strength of soul to make the most of the time we have; and to place our confidence for whatever is yet to come in God's eternal mercy. The Christmas cards and letters are daily stuffing our letter basket. One greeting bore graphic and verbal celebration of a life not yet gone, the wife of a college classmate, in the closing stages of Alzheimer's. Reading my friend's tender and grateful testament to his bride, I felt a certain moisture forming in my eyes. When such sadness rises, I repair to that baby in a manger, the man he became, the words he spoke: about a father's house with many rooms; about a great banquet feast; about nestling in Abraham's bosom; about sparrows and numbered hairs, and how intimately each of us is known and loved by heaven. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
The baby born in a manger comes to lift the cross for us, because of us, with us.