Sometimes I think the main problem with Christmas may be the infant Jesus. It’s easy to romanticize the sweet babe of Bethlehem. And it’s easy to forget what Simeon said when Mary presented her child in the temple: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many,” and “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). There’s darkness as well as light in the new Christ.
The rising I’ll take, but I’m not so sure about the falling of many. What if I’m among the many who will fall? 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). 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. Like most people I’ve learned to keep my deepest inner thoughts to myself. I don’t like the idea that they will be revealed, especially in a way that’s not of my choosing. 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). I confess I do love the darkness that hides my innermost self from public scrutiny. So part of me would prefer Jesus remain a winsome infant in the manger.
In the way we do Christmas in our part of the world, two things stand out. The first is how quickly we grab hold of the bright hope of the season leading up to Christmas. Despite our self-imposed burdens of busyness and consumerism, we’re swept up and carried along by the brightness of hope. On a people who live in deep darkness, light has shined, and for a moment we’re almost ready to have our lives changed. The Prince of Peace almost reigns among us.
The second thing that stands out is how quickly it all begins to disappear. The first Christmas trees, symbols of eternal life, start being tossed to the curb on December 26. In our neighborhood, one even appeared there on Christmas Day. People quickly start packing away both the decorations and the spirit of the season, and we return to business as usual.
Like the wise men from the East, we lay our gifts at the manger and go back to the life we’ve known, with little or no evidence that we’ve been touched in any transforming way. Like magi from the East, we carefully if subconsciously avoid going to Jerusalem, to confront and challenge the ruling center of the world that holds us in its grip. We leave it to Jesus to go there for us and speak truth to power and pay the price for our transformation.
But if Christmas for the world ends on December 25, for the Church that’s when it begins. The work of God that began with Incarnation in Jesus continues with God’s continuing Incarnation in all of us. We say that in Jesus 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, we say, light has come to the world. But do we believe it? Do we trust it to be our vocation as the body of Christ today? Or will we simply lay our gifts at the manger and go back to the lives where we’ve 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? 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.” I believe he 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 challenging enough for me to figure out how I’m going to do the work of Christmas and stay committed to it; it’s beyond me to tell you what you need to do. But 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). What is your calling, the vocation of your life, as a member of the body of Christ, newly born in the world?
Questions for reflection
For what gifts will you be remembered? How does your stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to you reflect your attitude toward the God in whom we live and move and have our being? How do you use your gifts to pay homage to God in this world?
Thomas Merton wrote: “If you want to identify me . . . ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” How do you answer those questions about yourself today? What does your lifestyle and your use of the resources that have been entrusted to you for a season say about your primary allegiance in life?
When Christmas Day is past and the season of Christmas has ended, when you have for one brief moment encountered a new manifestation of God’s presence in the world, how will you return home? How will you be the same? How will you be different? If your encounter with Christ makes a difference in your life, how will that difference be reflected in the day-to-day choices you make?