The main problem with Christmas, I sometimes think, is the infant Jesus. The sweet babe of Bethlehem is such a winsome figure, it’s easy to romanticize him and forget Simeon’s words when Mary presented her newborn son in the temple: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). There’s darkness as well as light in the eyes of the child who wears death like a crown.
The rising part of his destiny, I’ll take. I’m not so sure about the falling of many. What will I do if I find myself among the many who will fall because of Christ? After all, not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, he said, but only those who do God’s will (Matt. 7:21). Perhaps the warning is for me. My ego is powerful and very tricky, and just because I think I’m doing God’s will doesn’t mean I’m really doing so.
And the revealing of my inner thoughts? I’m not so sure about that, either. I’m fairly well aware of my inner thoughts and feelings, but like most people in this culture I’ve learned to keep them to myself, and I probably do a better job of it than many. The prospect that they might be revealed, and revealed in a way that’s not of my choosing, is not a pleasant one. So part of me would prefer Jesus remain an infant in the manger.
Life seems less risky if I confine Christmas to a stable in Bethlehem. It would seem so much easier if I could simply lay my gifts at the manger and go home, return to life as usual, unchanged. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with the disruption of my carefully ordered little world of self. Then I could offer as gift my things and my time and not myself. My bank account might be diminished in some great or small way, but my ego could remain strong and independent and unchallenged as ever. It’s easy to understand why, when Jesus was born, “people did not accept him” (John 1:11) because they “loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). The familiar, even if it is dark, is a jealous god.
Take, for example, the “wise men from the East” who saw the star of Jesus at its rising and came to pay him homage (Matt. 2:1-2). We call them wise, and they may have been wise in the ways of the world and even in the ways of the Spirit. They recognized the light when it appeared; they were drawn to it and traveled far to find it; they opened their treasure chests to it. Then they turned around and went back home. There’s not a word to indicate the encounter touched them in any transforming way.
The scripture says they were “warned in a dream not to return to Herod” (Matt. 2:12). Some read that as divine guidance, God warning them to avoid the secular powers already conspiring to eliminate the child who was perceived as a threat to power. However, I think it just as likely, maybe more so, that it was a subconscious warning from their fearful egos to play it safe; to avoid danger; to keep it “spiritual” rather than get involved in the politics of the local situation.
Two things stand out for me about how we do Christmas in our part of the world. The first is how quickly and easily we grab hold of the bright hope of the season leading up to it. Even with our self-imposed burden of busyness and our consumerist idolatry, we are carried along despite ourselves by the brightness of hope. On a people who live in deep darkness, light has shined, and for a moment we are almost ready to let our lives be changed. The Prince of Peace almost reigns among us, and not for Christians only.
The second thing that stands out for me is how quickly it all begins to disappear on December 26. That’s when the first Christmas trees, symbols of eternal life, are tossed away; both the decorations and the spirit of the time start being packed away; and our public attention to Incarnation gives way to business as usual.
Like wise men from the East, we lay our material and temporal gifts at the manger and go back to life as we’ve known it, unchanged, with little if any evidence that we’ve been touched in any transforming way. We heed the dream-warnings of our fearful egos and carefully if subconsciously avoid going to Jerusalem, to confront and challenge the ruling center of the world that holds us in thrall. We leave it to Jesus – how convenient – to make the trip to Jerusalem for us and speak truth to power and pay the price for our transformation and freedom.
If Christmas for the world ends on December 26, and if Christmas for the Church begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, the work of God that began with Incarnation in Jesus continues with God’s continuing Incarnation in all of us. It’s of no use whatever that Jesus was born in Bethlehem if Christ is nor born in us today. It’s of no use that Jesus announced and lived the gospel in his day if we don’t announce and live the gospel today. It begins with me, and with you, but it depends on all of us together.
In Jesus, we say, the promise of God was fulfilled, “to bring good news to the poor,” “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). In Jesus, light has come to the world. We say it, but do we believe it? Do we trust it to be our continuing vocation as the body of Christ today? Or will we simply and safely lay our gifts at the manger and go back to where we have settled?
This is where someone usually asks, “What’s the bottom line?” What are some specific things I can do, or that we can do together, to do the work of Christmas? And I’ll tell you, I don’t know. I’ll tell you I believe Howard Thurman nailed it when he wrote that the work of Christmas is “To find the lost, / To heal the broken, / To feed the hungry, / To release the prisoner, / To rebuild the nations, / To bring peace among brothers [and sisters], / To make music in the heart.”1 I believe Howard Thurman was right because that’s what Jesus said his work was, and it’s the work he passed on to all who follow him.
It’s challenge enough for me to figure out how I’m going to do the work of Christmas and stay committed to doing it. I’m not able to tell you what you need to do; somewhere in your heart you already know what you’re called to do. It’s up to all of us, together as the Church, to figure out how we’re going to continue the work of Christmas together, to work out the details of our own salvation “with fear and trembling,” knowing it’s God who is at work in us, inspiring both the will and the deed that pleases God (Phil. 2:12-13).2
During the next few weeks I’ll try to say a few words about how Jesus and the early Church saw their work. And I’ll speculate on how that work translates to our day and situation. I hope you’ll stay with me for the journey.
notes — 1. Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas.” ▪ 2. When Paul charges the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” the pronoun he uses, “your,” is plural; he is addressing the whole community of faith.