December 19, 2016 by J. Truett Glen
Every good holiday speaks to the weakness of humanity. Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas; they all celebrate our inability, and dependence. Christmas and Easter are bookends in the tragically beautiful story of our impotence, and the strength of God. We spend our glory on instant pleasures and slowly earned security, which proves to be no security at all. Death finds us. The long, shadowy arm of judgement, like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future, points to our grave, and reveals our name written in stone. We are impotent, and our Lord knows this. In Christmas we celebrate God impregnating humankind with Himself, because we lack the ability to produce an offspring to save us. Christmas uncovers our naked shame, and violates our sense of autonomy. Some Christians may condescendingly laugh at the idea that many western cultures are attempting to erase Christ from Christmas, but I certainly wouldn’t blame them if they were. No humanistic culture makes a habit of celebrating its sterility! Godless human cultures celebrate an ever coming age built on their own vitality, on their own virility. Women will mother humankind into a state of perfection! Men will conquer all worlds, and shape their own destiny! These are the vain babbles of humanity.
Christmas gloriously slights us all. Christmas graciously condemns us, and then quietly calls us near…whispering from a lowly place, “Come, and see great strength in profound weakness.” Many do come, and many do listen, and then bury the sound, as we have always been tempted to do (Romans 1:18-19). The lights, the aroma, the aesthetic bliss, points to a reality that is always present, but not always seen. The tree is not just a tree. Snow is not just frozen crystalline water. A baby isn’t just a baby, and gifts aren’t just gifts. The sound of bells resonate in deeper places than can be articulated by our clumsy language. The sound speaks of death and life. Longfellow pictured it well when he wrote, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”” Christmas bells speak not only of life, but of death…and the life that comes through death. The great 20th century, Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, proclaims it this way:
Indeed, in faith He tells us that through Christ we have already become different, that we are “a new creation.” This “new creation” only becomes real through the death of the “old man.” The fact that we have to die—in every sense of the word—both physically and spiritually, shows how gravely God judges our present existence. (The Divine Imperative, pg. 173-174)
Our awareness of our condition, and our willingness to own culpability for our transgressions against the Creator, enables us to approach the beautiful hope, love, joy, and peace of Advent. Hope is built out with substance when death is wagging its finger in our face. The idea of hope can take root in our hearts and actions when it is given weight by the reality that we are a damned people without the Advent. Love is defined with limitations and extravagance when we understand that he has a name, and that we don’t deserve his intervention. The second chapter of Philippians hints at the “theological” significance of the Creator serving the world at the level of the created. We are shown what friendship is in the Advent, and what sacrificial love for friends requires of those who would conform to the love of God.
Having experienced the hope and love of Christ, a divinely empowered joy begins to take residence in our daily postures. Fear of loss is named for what it is, a distracting lie. Joy is given its proper footing in our relational posturing. The Advent gives us a name: the beloved. When one is deeply loved with transformative power, joy is the proper response. We are chosen ones, and we celebrate our new identity as such. As faith in the Advent of Christ produces hope, love, and joy within us, a peace that passes understanding girds our hearts and minds. Even the darkest moments no longer spell death for us. Where once stood the long dark finger of judgment, now stands the extended hand of love…calling us into an intimate eternity with the resurrected One. The peace offered by the Advent tells us that death is no longer our master; that it no longer has a sting. Man is dead, and God has been made man, so that he might share in that death. Death then is identified for what it was always meant to be, the scent of true need. Need is most clearly understood when the provision is revealed in the same room. In Christ we see the fragility of humankind married to the sovereignty of God, and we become unbreakable within him. The one who sees this, feels this, owns this, and becomes this, cannot help but know peace.
Christmas has been consistently meaningful for me throughout my life; the movies, the songs, the food, the decorations, the presents, and the reflective ceremonies. One of my favorite Christmas movies, or movies period, is White Christmas with Bing Crosby. That movie gives me the feel-goods every time I watch it. That said, there are two particular scenes in another movie that strike a much deeper place within me. Nothing reflects my general mood during the Christmas season like these two scenes in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s these two scenes that speak of our general human awareness that all is not well, and yet that the cure has been provided. The first scene is in the beginning when Charlie Brown just isn’t feeling it. He knows that something is ironically out of place. He sees the paradox, and confides in his conversation partner. Near the end of the movie Linus helps Charlie Brown see what he has really always known, that Christmas is not about self-fulfillment. Christmas is not about parties and gifts. It’s about an epic show of divine power and love. We can’t capture that transcendent beauty in a season, or even a moment, but we can cultivate it there…at Christmas. We can write the Advent into that day, into that season, and do so in tangible ways that remind us that eternity has embraced us in the one born of Mary, Christ Jesus our Lord.