Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reflections for the 12 Days: Christmas as Problem

“The Holidays,” and most especially Christmas, pose a problem to a great number of people. The reasons are varied: memory of lost loved ones, the scars of unhappy family Christmases past, and, perhaps most widespread, the vaguer sense of never being able to get with the alleged and elusive “spirit” of the season.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t belong to the “bah, humbug” crowd. I really love Christmas. But it’s simply true that Christmas always threatens to disappoint.

How could it not, granted the excessive hype of the cultural celebration? Mothers trying to create the “perfect” Christmas for their children; husbands looking for the gift for their wives that will unlock that special smile from the heart; children expecting that every Christmas will be even better than the last; the perils of family gatherings.

And so, “Blue Christmas” services have sprung up like mini-oases in the bleak mid-winter for those afraid of too much exposure to songs celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.” 

Challenges of the Messianic Promise

The problem goes deeper than the Santa-expectations and the tenuous “magic” of the holidays straight into the heart of the Christian story of Jesus’ birth. After all, he was “born to save us from our sins” and sin still abounds mightily. The angel told Mary that he would “sit on the throne of his father David and rule over the house of Israel forever,” which he may well do in heaven, but on the plane of earthly history his life ended on a Roman cross. ‘

The early community's faith, expressed in the Christmas story, was faced the first and second generations with the problem of unfulfilled promise. Where is the promise of his coming?*  they asked—that Coming that would fulfill the promises of the angels, the promises the original disciples had imagined would be fulfilled in Jesus’ own earthly triumph over sin and injustice. As the carol says of the angel’s song: 

   But with the woes of sin and strife/ The world has suffered long;
   Beneath the angel-song have rolled/ Two thousand years of wrong**

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer. I really love the Christmas stories. But a proclamation of these stories, and of the gospel itself, in forms too cheerfully magical can lead people to great disappointment. Yes, “Jesus saves,” but miraculous transformations are few and far between. Yes, Jesus is “Lord of all the earth” in the upbeat hymn, but millions of Syrian refugees shiver in the cold this Christmas, and people in the Central African Republic die in droves violently every day.

Whatever else it is, neither the gospel nor the Way of Jesus are a panacea for the world Jesus came to save. If we take the Proclamation of the Angels seriously, we must admit that Christmas is not only promise and problem, but also paradox.

Next: Christmas as Paradox
*   2 Peter 3:4
** "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"by The Rev. Edmund Sears, 1849

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