It's not that I didn't like Christmas--or even that I didn't love it. But in terms of fun, I'd generally prefer a fun-in-the-sun 4th of July spent swimming, sitting around a campfire and watching things explode. And theologically speaking, I never found Christmas nearly as compelling as the glorious Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Or even as powerful as Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon a rag-tag band of Jesus's friends who then went out and transformed the world.
In my mind, the birth of Jesus, while important, just didn't compare. (I can remember actually feeling perplexed when my wife explained to me the giddy affection St. Francis of Assisi held for the Child Jesus.) Even after one cuts through the secularization of Christmas, you still pretty frequently find a day that's overly sentimental, even saccharine. A day where children make a cake for Baby Jesus and sing "Happy Birthday" and blow out the candles and "Oh, isn't that so cute!"
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the birthday celebration approach. It's a fine introduction to Christmas for little ones. Still, I found Christmas to be, in a word--nice.
But nice isn't enough.
Our world is troubled. Ebola is devastating Africa. Lunatics are beheading children in the Middle East. Europe's decline continues. Russia and China are growing more aggressive.
And then there are the personal troubles that weigh on our hearts. You could be heading into Christmas with a frightening medical diagnosis. Maybe it's your first Christmas without a loved one. Perhaps you're out of work.
Nice isn't going to cut it.
And let's face it: if you're not suffering, it just means you're not suffering yet. As I wrote here nearly two years ago:
While many young adults gladly trade their faith for the transient pleasures of a licentious lifestyle, I had a bit of a different perspective. I was 23 years old with a beautiful wife and a beautiful baby. If there were no God, I realized that I was at the absolute peak of life. If there were no afterlife, the best-case scenario for my future involved 60 or so years of gradual decline, followed by a death which would render my entire life meaningless.In his Confessions, St. Augustine described my plight much more eloquently: "For lovely things...come to be and they pass away, and by coming they begin to be, and they grow toward perfection. Then, when perfect, they begin to grow old and perish" (Confessions, page 48).
At 23 I had a beautiful wife. A brand new adorable baby. My life was perfect, and thus it was beginning to grow old and perish.
This phenomenon isn't just limited to individual people and things. Chesterton notes that it applies to all of human civilization:
There was nothing left that could conquer Rome; but there was also nothing left that could improve it. It was the strongest that was growing weak. It was the best thing that was going to the bad....No philosopher who was really philosophical could think anything except that, in that central sea, the wave of the world had risen to its highest, seeming to touch the stars. But the wave was already stooping; for it was only the wave of the world (GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, page 133).On the eve of my 25th birthday that keen awareness of my own mortality returned. Any of us under a certain age spent the first two-and-a-half decades of our life hearing the same platitudes like "You're so young! You've got your whole life ahead of you!"
But as I approached that quarter-century mark, the realization hit me that it wasn't true any more. My whole life wasn't ahead of me. A lot of my life, hopefully, was in front of me. But a lot of it was behind me--milestones like my college graduation, my wedding day, my first job, the birth of my first child, and others had passed. The world was no longer my oyster.
I think I've contemplated my death every day since.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,For nearly all of human history, contemplation of one's own mortality warranted only despair. After all, wealth, pleasure and honor provide no benefit to one whose corpse is rotting in the ground.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
At which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
Nor will there be any remembrance
Of people yet to come
By those who come after them. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 11)
And so there are those who are suffering (whether physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually). And there are those who are not--those who might seem to have everything. But whether slowly or suddenly, everything will be taken away. Sooner or later, sin and death and decay prevail.
To quote Chesterton again, "There was no God; if there had been a God, surely this was the very moment when He would have moved and saved the world."
And then one starry night in some remote corner of the Roman Empire He did.
The Creator of the universe launched an invasion of time and space that served, the turning point--the D-Day, if you will--in all of human history. An invasion to reclaim and redeem us. An invasion to ensure that every broken heart will be mended and every tear dried. An invasion that gives us hope of life and joy beyond the grave.
No, this invasion would not be complete until Christ suffered on the Cross, went to the grave Himself and triumphed in the Resurrection. But that night in Bethlehem marked the beginning of the end for the Prince of Darkness. Now, neither suffering nor the prospect of our eventual deaths are cause for despair. "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15: 55)
This is what brought hosts of angels to a cave in the middle of nowhere. It's what brought the adoration of lowly shepherds and magnificent kings alike. It's what prompted the Slaughter of the Innocents--the last, desperate gasp of Hell trying to preserve its reign on earth. It's why we'll gather tomorrow night to make merry with those we love most.
And it's what I missed in the sometimes saccharine celebration of Christmas. This isn't a birthday party for God's Sake; it's a revolution!
Christmas is a reminder that whatever is causing suffering in our lives, the victory is won. Hope abounds. Be not afraid.
Let's let Chesterton take us home:
There is something defiant in it...something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable.Have a blessed, merry and revolutionary Christmas!
The weary world rejoices