The carols have been sung. The gifts have been given. Family has come and gone. As I write this, Alissa just went to bed. The kids, who had been wound tight as a spring in anticipation are fast asleep. I’m sitting here in an empty living room. It’s quiet. The TV’s off. For all our attempts at keeping the house under control, the room is full of the remnants of our merry-making. The tree and garland are still lit and a sense of peace has descended on my home. I know that not all my readers are Christian. I know not all my readers are from North America, or even industrialized countries, and therefore may not have had the precise experience of celebrating Christmas as an American family. But many of you do celebrate Christmas in some form, and I would wager that folks who don’t have my specific background still have the experience of some kind of “major” celebration and therefore know a moment like the one in which I find myself. So hopefully you can appreciate the moment, the exhalation, the calm after the storm, the silent night.
So what’s it all about? What is it about this holiday, that gets everyone so wound up, so excited?
Yes, I know, Madison Avenue and a consumer-driven society have a lot to do with it, except that’s not what I’m getting at. If there were no Christmas, someone would find a way to turn gift giving into a New Year’s tradition.
What I’m getting at is why Christmas , and I mean real, religious Christmas is such a big deal. We all know the story. A young Jewish girl is told by an angel that she’s going to become pregnant with God’s son, and the angel intervenes with her fiancée to protect her from the consequences imposed in her society for out of wedlock pregnancy. Nine months later, the baby is born in a stable because there’s no room at the inn in Bethlehem. Angels tell the shepherds that their savior has been born. Asian astrologers follow a star sign and pay homage to the baby.
We know this story. We have the images in our heads. A silent town with a light in a stable. Terrified shepherds. Choirs of angels. Three kings riding camels across the desert.
And at the end of it all, at least in the Luke narrative, we are told that Mary “kept all these things and ponders them in her heart.”
We’re left with the image of a young mother, sitting alone, or maybe lying awake as her family sleeps, her husband by her side and her baby in her arms. A silent night.
We have images of these events, and they’re sterile. They leave out the smells emanating from poor people who work with animals for a living. They hay in the stable is invariably clean. We’re not shown the details of Mary giving birth, of the pain and struggle and the reality that the process gets pretty messy before the baby is swaddled in Mary’s arms. And there’s that moment out in the fields. The shepherds get the message from one angel who is joined by a heavenly choir. That image is usually accompanied by some grand piece of choral music.
It’s a strange story isn’t it? The supreme ruler of the universe has his son born into the least glorious circumstances possible. And he’s supposed to save the world how? Why doesn’t He just appear on a cloud and open up a big can of divine evil smiting?
I’m not going to get into the whole theology of substitutional sacrifice here. We know the story. We know that it asserts that Jesus is the son of God and came to save humanity through by dying for our sins. That’s actually not my point in this post. The point is that Christmas is a big deal because it is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. And in the fulfillment of those prophecies, the stage is set for the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy, the restoration of humanity to right relationship with God. It’s the redemption of the fall.
And so, when I see that image of the heavenly host singing to shepherds, I’m really seeing a celebration in heaven, a celebration in anticipation of finally ending of all the evil that has taken place since the fall. In my mind the celebration is righteously raucous. All the hatred and violence and poverty and oppression is on its way out. I don’t see a silent night. I see an amazing celebration that brings to mind a line from a song I sang in the Occidental College Gospel Choir. “I can hear arcangels a rockin’ Jerusalem.” No, it’s certainly not silent.