Christmas is a time of celebration and joy. A time in which we struggle to make everything perfect and beautiful. It is a time for unity and love, quite literally a gilded season in which even opposing armies have ceased their military engagement in order to exchange pleasantries and even gifts on the day of Jesus’ birth. It is therefore quite ironic that our conception of Christmas is so at odds with the Biblical reality of Jesus’ birth.
It must be remembered that the birth of Jesus did not occur in the beatific settings that we typically construct for our Christmas crèches. Seeking to show the beauty of the birth of Jesus, we have found a way to make even the most spartan of circumstances still look like an image from a Hallmark card. This has resulted in the image of the manger positioned at the entrance of the manger, perfectly centered on an open hillside, and bated in dazzling heavenly light. We have dispensed with the family taking the more reasonable position deep inside the cave that likely housed the stables of the inn for the sake of beauty and imagery. The sad truth is this is not the greatest myth of Christmas that Christians cling to.
The greatest myth of the Christmas season is that it is something that EVERYONE should celebrate. This understanding comes from the days in which the western world shared a common belief in Jesus as the Christ of Christmas. Only in a Christian world can everyone feel the joys of the Christmas season, for only in Christendom can all citizens weak and strong claim the sovereignty of the same King. For those who deny the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, the birth of the new King is not viewed as a joyous occasion, but as a threat against the powers that rule their life.
This is exactly the world into which King Jesus was born. Jesus was born into a world that already had a King. In fact, it already had more than one. Israel was ruled by King Herod the Great and Herod served at the pleasure of the Roman Emperor Augustus, who was known by the title of King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The praise of the shepherds at the manger would have been interpreted as treasonous behaviors in both Jerusalem and Rome. In later months when the magi shared the news that a new King had been born King Herod, fearing the usurpation of his own throne, sought to eliminate the threat to his sovereignty.
Herod calculated the date and the location of the birth of this baby and then calmly gave the order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Only the supernatural intervention of God prevented the death of King Jesus, as His father was told in a dream to escape to Egypt. King Jesus was still in diapers when he experienced the wrath of this world’s authority for the first time. It would not be the last time.
Cultural Christians are typically confused by the reluctance of our friends and neighbors to get on board with the celebrations of Jesus’ birth. We cannot comprehend why people are unwilling to sing “Joy to the World!”, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” or the other Christmas carols loaded with exclamations and praise to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We hear the constant reminders from our non-Christian friends that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, but ignore the meaning behind their historically true statement. The fact that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December is evidence of our usurpation of pagan holy days.
Christmas has never been without controversy and the controversy will only grow deeper as we become less homogenized as a people. That leaves us with two ways to bring peace to this conflicted holiday season. We either go about converting our friends and neighbors to worship King Jesus or we drop the scandalous claims about Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
It is becoming clear that most Christians would prefer option number two.
Cultural Christians are more likely to seek affirmation in the traditional holiday celebrations of Santa Claus and Christmas trees, than we are in sharing the Good News of the coming of the Christ to our friends and neighbors. Arguing over the crèche in a public space is so 1993. We have moved on to protesting Starbucks for not putting Christmas trees on their holiday cups, or the local retail outlets for saying Happy Holidays. Perhaps those who are arguing for Christians to demand the obligatory Merry Christmas at the check-out lines have a point; for that is perhaps the last vestige of Christ that is left of our proto-Pagan holiday celebrations. Slowly but surely the pagan world has taken back their holiday from the Church. In our desire to make the peace with the culture and enjoy the most wonderful time of the year without controversy we have thrown out King Jesus with the bath water.
All, however, is not lost.
The Church is always where God wants us to be when our backs are up against the wall. Jesus told his disciples that when they were persecuted and had to answer for their faith in Jesus Christ, then God would give them the words to use. We are here in this world to answer questions in times of controversy and difficulty. The fat, entertained, passive Church is of no heavenly value or earthly good. We are at our best when we are forced to make a choice and speak the truth about Jesus Christ in love to the world.
The birth of Jesus Christ is a special occasion not because it was the most beautiful birth in the most wonderful place. It most certainly was neither the perfect time nor space to have a baby. It was never about the date, or the time, the season or the setting. It was always about the Son. What makes the other things special is the Son who was born in a manger in Bethlehem in perfection. Jesus was the Son of the Covenant between God and Abraham. He was the Son of the blessing given thru Isaac and Jacob. He was the Son of the promise given to David that His heir would eternally occupy the throne. Most importantly Jesus was the Son of the Most High God; the living embodiment of God come to earth.
It doesn’t really matter what people think about Jesus today. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Christmas is not about people knowing who Jesus is. Christmas is about God breaking in to the lives of those who are surprised by God’s revelation to them. It is when God opens the eyes of the world that Christmas comes to us. It is when a child hears the story of Jesus for the first time that we celebrate Christmas. It is when Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and received by the people of God that Christmas comes.
Ironies abound at Christmas time. The day that was stolen from the pagan world by the Church has been won back from a people that turned away from the word of God. The Church has never been less powerful or more at odds with the world. We are broken, a stump that once was a mighty tree, but this stump has green shoots. While the world is content to look for a savior amongst the most perverse and corrupt of politicians and popular entertainers, the Church is sitting on the name above all names who was, is and will be the Savior of this world and Lord of the next. Jesus. The long-awaited Messiah and the Coming King of the Universe is Christmas to us. We don’t need to be served by Christmas quoting cashiers to proclaim the name of Jesus. We don’t need green and red coffee cups to let us know who is on the throne. We only need to faithfully tell the story and proclaim the Gospel to a world that awaits its King.
Let me close with the words of Mary, who proclaimed the first Christmas salutation upon receiving the Good News that the long-awaited Savior was to come to the world through God’s calling to her. She said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of his servant.” God is calling you to be a Christmas angel this year, to bear the Christ to the world around you. Today you are the humble servant God is calling to bring Jesus to this world. If you have received the Word of God now is the time to share it with the world.