Thousands of Christmas cards and books display endless variations on scenes from the Biblical account: shepherds with sheep and angels, wisemen on camels, barnyard animals surrounding perfectly illuminated mangers. Like many adults, the Christmas season creates internal tension for me. The familiar postcard depictions draw me toward the nostalgia of a childhood that experienced Christmas without the responsibilities and knowledge that adulthood brings. One scene from the Christmas story doesn’t appear on any postcard but I believe offers a way to reconcile the joy of the idyllic Christmas season with the realities of life in the modern world.
The human soul longs for peace on earth, rest, harmony. The Incarnation perfectly addresses this deepest of needs and, at its best, Christmas celebration blossoms from the hope of Emmanuel, “God with us”. As Simeon sang after seeing the infant Jesus:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
As adults, though we feel the need for peace and hope more acutely we less able to engage with the hope. Just because December 25th is rolling around doesn’t mean we get a break from bills, or caring for aging parents. We enjoy the delight of children, but many of us feel we have to “fake it” for their benefit; we don’t want to be anyone’s Grinch. So on top of our burden of life we add the pressure of feeling cynical or hypocritical. (If this doesn’t describe you, keep reading because you will be able to care for other adults in your life who struggle this way).
Some critics have called Christianity “pie in the sky” implying that the gospel doesn’t deal with the realities of life, offering instead good feeling and crossed-fingered blind optimism. Matthew 2:16, a postcard-resistant scene in the Christmas account, dismantles this charge:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
Matthew and Luke weren’t writing “Christmas Stories”, they were telling the amazing news of an invasion from Heaven into a world “in sin and error pining”. Jesus’s birth was the cause of great rejoicing for many, but was simultaneously the event that motivated a grasping, jealous king to murder many innocent boys:
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2: 17-18
So yes, as Isaiah proclaimed:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of YHWH of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
At the same time, life continues. We remain in the world and we continue to wrestle with our own human bent toward sin (Romans 8:13), a way of thinking that is opposed to the mind of God (Romans 12:2) and with powerful spiritual enemies who actively war against the expanding kingdom of the Prince of Peace (Ephesians 6:12).
Here’s my advice to myself. Instead of feeling cynical during this season,
Let Chrismas be:
- a memento of my personal peace with God (Romans 5:1)
- a foretaste of my future glory with Christ. (Romans 5:2)
- a reminder that the story isn’t finished yet (John 15:20)
- an assurance that Jesus shares in life’s struggles, even at Christmas (John 16:33)
- a call to think of the day when Christ will wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4)