Few things come to such a sudden stop as Christmas, at least in our culture. On December 26, the first Christmas trees appear on the curbs, and the last Christmas music disappears from the radio. Retailers can hardly wait to clear away the season’s displays as they remake themselves into a marketing Mecca for the next opportunity to put cash in their tills.
Some retailers don’t want Christmas at all; all they want is the profit they can make from it. When the East Aurora Village Singers started singing Christmas carols in the village, one shopkeeper after another shooed them away so they wouldn’t obstruct customer traffic. They finally found a welcome at Vidler’s, where they’ve been singing for thirty-four years. Too often in our culture the meaning of Christmas is pushed aside for commercial gain or cultural self-service.
Elsewhere, Advent still is a season of spiritual and not merely commercial or cultural preparation. December 25 is only the beginning of twelve days of feasting and celebration, culminating in the great Twelfth Night celebration of Epiphany, when we Christians mark the dawning of God’s light on the Gentile world beyond the boundaries of Judaism, which is to say when Christmas finally got big enough to include us goyim.
For us, however, it’s a quick return to life as usual. Discard the used wrapping paper; savor the leftovers; plan to return or exchange gifts; and prepare for the awful imminence of January’s Master Card advent. It reminds me of the Buddhist expression, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.” After the mountain-top experience of Christmas, we hustle downhill to the valley of the shadow of ordinary days. After Bethlehem, we discover the bedlam of daily life is still there waiting for us.
If there’s a better way to “do Christmas,” a way that eliminates the return to bedlam, I think I might have discovered it by now. But every year brings the same cycle from high to low. For many, the contrast between the ideal of Christmas and the reality of daily life causes an increase in depression. And at the end of the holidays we see the suicide rate begin to rise as people notice the weather improving but nothing getting better in their lives.
It seems that’s the way it will always be. Like Camelot, Christmas is here for one brief shining moment, then it’s back to the daily grind, where things appear to be no different, no better, than before. After we’ve been to Bethlehem, how do we return to bedlam and survive? Maybe, sometimes, we survive it like Jesus and his family did, by fleeing to Egypt.
Jesus’ birth so threatened the social, economic, and political powers of his day, the only option they imagined was to get rid of him, so they tried their best to do so. And what did Joseph do? He packed up the family and fled to Egypt – to Egypt, where his ancestors had been held in slavery and oppression: Egypt, where a defining struggle for freedom had been won, a struggle that gave them their identity as a people chosen by God for a holy purpose. Joseph took Jesus and his family and – imagine this – returned for safety to the place of their former bondage.
The first thing that happened after the star and angels and shepherds and magi was a retreat to safety in a place where they had known slavery. Somewhere in that awful place was a sanctuary of care and protection for the fragile new manifestation of God. It wasn’t the first experience of finding benefit in a place of captivity.
Nearly six hundred years earlier, when Israel’s national elite were taken into captivity in Babylon, God told them to settle there and raise families and pray for the welfare of the people who held them captive. For in the welfare of your captors, God told them, you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:4-7).
It’s not what I would expect: that in the conditions of life from which freedom has been won, I would find refuge and sanctuary from danger; that in the welfare of my captors and oppressors I would find my own welfare. But there they are, these two great, historic, defining occasions in the development of our faith, when the situations from which I want to be free, from which I pray to God to be set free, are situations into which God may lead me to find sanctuary and welfare.
Is this what Paul had in mind when he wrote about the reconciliation God was accomplishing in Christ, the Christ in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17)? Is this why Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44)?
And is this why bedlam is waiting for us when we return from Bethlehem, because after the ecstasy of the Nativity, we find the fullest expression of Incarnation in the laundry, in the ordinary tasks and pressures of everyday life, in the ordinary burdens of life from which we fantasize about being set free?
If there’s a reason why God summons us to Bethlehem to behold the birth of Christ, maybe there’s also a reason why God sends us back home to the bedlam of our lives. Perhaps precisely in embracing life’s bedlam, in loving – in valuing – the chaos of life, we find the truest expression of Incarnation, the living presence of God that unites and transforms all the fragments of life into a new and living whole that is eternal.