Looking beyond the circumstances of Christmas
As we enter the Advent season I get to reflect on the meaning of Christmas. Our society promotes the idea that Christmas should be an entirely happy time for everyone—that it should “nearly be like a picture print by Currier & Ives.” But we would do better to understand Christmas as the goodness of God breaking into the mess of our world and the mess of our lives. Christmas is not so much about idyllic circumstances but of a great God stepping into messed up circumstances with us.
I love Isaiah’s prophecy about the birth of Jesus in Isaiah 9:2 & 6: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
These are uplifting words, but I need to remember that they were written in the midst of a huge mess! It was a time of great “darkness” for the people of Judah. Israel and Syria had recently attacked Judah, killing 120,000 Jewish people and taking 200,000 as prisoners. Judah appealed to Assyria for help. Assyria came to the rescue…kind of. The Assyrian army swept through Syria and Israel and Judah ruthlessly, burning down cities, burning the countryside, burning people, impaling victims on stakes, chopping off people’s hands, and chopping off people’s heads. They rescued Judah from Israel and Syria but turned out to be a far more terrifying bully. The people of Judah understood that what was done to Israel and Syria would be done to them if they rebelled. At the same time, several smaller neighboring nations continued to harass them, darting in to capture cities and citizens. Internally, things were no better. Their king, Ahaz, was a horrible king. He promoted the worship of the pagan god Molech who demanded human sacrifices. Ahaz went so far as to kill his own sons in sacrifice to Molech. A king who would sacrifice his own children could not be counted on to lead his people with justice, righteousness, and compassion!
When Jesus was born, the circumstances were a mess once again. The Jewish people were now under the thumb of a Roman army that ruled the land with a heavy hand. In particular, the “king” over Palestine, Herod the so-called “Great,” was a vicious man. He had risen to power through trickery and murder. He remained in power by murdering all who posed a possible threat to him—including his wife and two of his children (and a whole city full of infants in Bethlehem).
What this tells me is that I don’t have to wait for things to be idyllic in order to celebrate Christmas, nor do I have to feel guilty or despondent if things are not entirely happy during the Christmas season. What I need to take to heart is that God has a history of stepping into the mess of our circumstances to be with us. Circumstances might be frightening or frustrating or disheartening, but Christmas is not about idyllic circumstances; Christmas is about God stepping into the mess of our lives and the mess of our world to be with us. And in it all, He is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!