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December 25, 2005 | Christmas Day
Is It Over?
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark 1:1 (NRSV)
God really does slip into this world when nobody much is looking.
On one night of all nights God did it,
coming down the stairs of heaven carrying a child.
Whenever freedom is born, back of it now is a manger at Bethlehem.
And Calvary, with its shadow, which is our light!
So does the religion that begins in rescue end in a requirement
set in the context of God’s grace. God became human
in order that we, in our effort to be God, may not become monsters.
Love Is a Spendthrift
You may not know this, but I live with someone who goes to sleep whenever I am watching football games on television. Something about gridiron violence sends her packing off into the land of nod. When she returns, as invariably she does, her first words are, “Is it over?”
It was the same question a friend of mine asked me when I called him recently to arrange a luncheon meeting we routinely try to have during this time of year. I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was under some duress. It soon became clear that he was experiencing the accumulated fatigue and frustration that are the occupational hazards of being the parent of three young children getting ready for Christmas.
Still, when he blurted out the question, “Is it over?” I was at a loss to know what he was referring to, so I responded with another question, “Is what over?” “Christmas,” he sighed. “All I want for Christmas is for it to be over. Is Christmas over yet?”
Together we chuckled at what we both realized was a somewhat rhetorical question designed to serve as a vehicle for expressing the weariness we both admitted to after a schedule-clogged “season to be jolly.” But somehow the question continued to hang in the air around me for the next few days like an odor, neither particularly fragrant nor particularly offensive, just there, to be noticed and perhaps to be pondered.
So ponder it I did, and in doing so, I began to realize that the question, born as it was out of the hassle of the holidays, was fundamentally a theological and spiritual question. Is Christmas something one eventually gets over, like a bad cold? Is it a once-a-year celebration, or is it something that has a long-lasting, even lifelong implication? Is it something that finally ends, or is it an end in itself? Is it over?
I read once of a little boy who liked to tell stories of imaginative adventures he had. He said that he had once met a lion, a tiger, a bear, and an elephant on the street, one after the other. Then, having exhausted his list of animals, he paused awkwardly and remarked, “And then, along came God.” Not a particularly flattering picture of God perhaps, bringing up the rear, as it were, showing up finally, but late—or so it seems—like an uninvited guest crashing a party. And you find yourself wondering what he’s doing here and what he’s up to. Is his presence a threat or a promise of good things to come, or both?
Maybe that is why we are sometimes ambivalent about Christmas, in the same way that we are ambivalent about God. If threat is involved, then we want it to be over in a hurry. Then again if there is promise, that’s another story.
Part of the threat is that there is something inevitable about God, even as there is something inevitable about Christmas. It may come but once a year, but make no mistake about it, it comes! There is a kind of relentlessness about it, as there is about God. Once it happened long ago in Bethlehem, there was no stopping its recurrence. We felt it bearing down on us a few weeks ago. And we scurried around to get done all we thought we needed to get done before it hit, like people in the path of a hurricane scrambling to get everything boarded up before it hits.
You couldn’t miss the fact that it would soon be Christmas. It was all around you, on the streets, in the stores, over the radio and television, on the websites, in the air. You knew it would inevitably be here. After the lions and tigers and bears and elephants, then along would come God, a God from whose presence we can never get away. Like those ubiquitous Santa Clauses on every other street corner or in every department store, God is everywhere.
Even if you define God, as one writer did, as “a disease we imagine we are cured of, because no one dies of it nowadays,” even the problem of the Absent God, the God who seems at times to have walked away from the creation, even this problem of the Absent God is itself a testimony to the fact that there is something inevitable about God and that sooner or later, just when we think God is gone for good, we’ll run into God as we round some corner in life, looking the other way.
In his new book, Inequality Matters, Bill Moyers decries what he calls “the social harms arising from the excesses of private power.” He states that “scarcely anyone in official Washington seems to be troubled by the gap between rich and poor that is greater than it has been in half a century—and greater than that of any other Western nation today.” He goes on to assert that “equality and inequality are words that have been all but expunged from the political vocabulary” and concludes that the fundamental agenda of government today is to wage war and reward the rich. Whether or not one agrees with this harsh assessment, it is important that we be open to whatever measure of truth and validity it contains. Evangelical activist Jim Wallis reminds us that Mary, when she heard that she would give birth to Jesus, thanked God for the one who would humble the mighty and exalt the lowly.
And that’s the threat, isn’t it? That our values and priorities get challenged when we turn that corner and bump into the inevitable God, from whom we can never get away, as the psalmist reminds us, and with whom we are never done, as we sheepishly look down at all the stuff in our hands while we stand just a stone’s throw away from the hollow eyes of the hungry and the haunted faces of the oppressed.
But there is promise here also. For life can be a rather lonely business at times. The promise is that the inevitable God, because of that very inevitableness, has not ultimately abandoned us either. The promise is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only forgotten Son,” as one little lad in a church school class I was teaching years ago put it. The boy had been abandoned by his parents, forgotten by them, and he was trying to learn the words of John 3:16 and misunderstood. Or did he? I put my arms around him and said, “Tommy, Tommy, I want you to know that God has not forgotten you. God gave his only ‘forgotten’ Son so that you and I and all people everywhere would not be forgotten by God. I’m here to tell you that, Tommy, as are the good people of this church. I pray you will always remember that.”
And the name of this inevitable God made known in the birth of Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
Then there is the threat of the vulgarity of God that Christmas brings. Vulgarity in the sense of the crude, the commonplace, “of the people,” even the obscene and what may appear to be profane. I shall never forget how startled I was one Christmas morning years ago while serving as chaplain in a state mental hospital. Walking along a corridor in the hospital, I encountered a patient whom I recognized. She greeted me cheerfully with the words, “Joy to the world, chaplain.” Then she uttered a commonplace four-letter expletive for human excrement. Later on I thought, she gets it. She really gets it. For it is into the midst of the ordinary, the mundane, the messiness, the muck and mire and mud, in and of life, that God comes. It was to a group of shepherds with the smell of sheep on them that the word was given about the birth of Jesus. It is often in the midst of the mundane that the magnificent is revealed.
The heel of Roman oppression was on the necks of the people of Judea back then. Poverty was rampant, and depression, futility, and despair were the order of the day for many people. It is the order of the day now in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, in the shantytowns of Africa in which people with AIDS live, in the depravation of the desert region of Darfur in the Sudan where women cannot get water for their families for fear they will be raped, and in the earthquake rubble in Pakistan. I suspect it is the nature of things among some of us seated here in this sanctuary this morning, as well as among those who frequent our Social Service Center and our Counseling Center.
The good news of Christmas and of the gospel is that it is into such a climate of loneliness, depression, sorrow, and despair that God in Christ comes to be with us. We call it Incarnation, the Word made flesh, dwelling with us and as one of us in the midst of the deprivation and dirt of humanity at its neediest. And whenever and wherever people of faith and compassion dare to insert themselves into the midst of all that in order to help meet those needs, there Jesus Christ is born again. Yes, it was glory to God in the highest, but it was glory to God in the lowest as well.
A few weeks ago, in an article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observed that a handful of images is sometimes as good as an armful of arguments (21 November 2005, p. 93). Whatever else Christmas is about, it is about memories, and memories are about images.
Over the years I have been fortunate to have experienced many memorable Christmases. The images of two from earlier in my life stand out as defining ones for me. They occurred a year apart, both on Christmas Eve. It was on that night in 1944 when I and three of my buddies from my infantry platoon attended midnight mass in the magnificent cathedral in the city of Strasbourg on the west bank of the Rhine River. On the other side of the river were units of the German army waiting to cross in an effort to take the city. In deference to the fact that it was Christmas Eve, nothing much was happening, though from time to time the enemy tried to infiltrate our positions and succeeded in placing snipers in strategic spots in the city.
There was something surreal about our being in that beautiful cathedral all dolled up in battle array with M-1 rifles slung over our shoulders and grenades dangling from ammo belts around our waists and across our chests, while we listened to “Silent Night, Holy Night” in German and heard about peace on earth and goodwill to men.
When we left the cathedral at the end of the mass, we immediately came under fire from a German sniper who had managed to take up position on a nearby rooftop. He was good at what he did, and one of my buddies was dead before he hit the ground, with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. We got the sniper finally, and an hour later we were ordered to move out to new positions just outside the city. Joy to the world!
A year later, on Christmas Eve 1945, I stood with Jim and John Palmer, twin brothers from Philadelphia, in the middle of a wooden shack-like house in the picturesque farm village of Mittersill, nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges in the Tyrolean region of Austria. The war in Europe had ended in May, and we were waiting to be redeployed to the States and home. We had befriended the Hoffman family, and Frau Hoffman did our laundry and a superb job of pressing our uniforms.
The military had requisitioned their modest but comfortable house, and now the Hoffmans were making do living in a wooden shack about two-thirds the size of the Randolph Room here at Fourth Church. There Herr and Frau Hoffman and their children lived: Eric, the oldest at nineteen, Dora eleven, Erica seven, Karl five, and little Anna Marie two and a half.
Jim, John, and I had filled three duffel bags full of food, articles of clothing, sundries, and some toys for the children that we had managed to accumulate. Over the weeks and months since the end of the war, we had endeared ourselves to the Hoffman family and they to us. So, on Christmas Eve 1945, we made our way through the snow to the place where they were now living.
When we arrived I could tell that something was wrong. Although they were delighted to see us, we learned that they had received word that their nineteen-year-old son, Eric, who had earlier been conscripted into the German army, had been killed in a motorcycle accident outside Innsbruck. I was struck by how Herr Hoffman dealt with his feelings by saying that there would now be more potato soup and black bread for little Anna Marie, the two-and-a-half-year-old.
It was a meal of potato soup and dark bread that we were invited to share with the Hoffman family around a wooden table. Expressions of sorrow commingled with those of appreciation and delight for our being there and for the abundance of gifts we had brought to them.
After we had eaten together, we gathered around another smaller table on which stood a straggly-looking Christmas tree and, holding hands, sang together, “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht.” As I looked around the circle, smiles and tears fought with each other for preeminence. The bittersweetness of the occasion was not lost on some of us. It could not have been more mundane than in that drafty wooden shack of a house where sorrow and love flowed, mingled down. And, I discovered later in retrospect, it could not have been more magnificent.
Christmas can be menacing to some people, what with its reminders of past pain and present experiences of sorrow, bitterness, hurt, and remorse. Like King Herod, when we are menaced in some way, we may try to get rid of God, edit God out of life’s equation, either through denial, indifference, or trivialization, so as to be rid of the menace. But sooner or later we have God on our hands, in spite of our best efforts to get over God.
If there is menace in Christmas, there is also mercy. Jesus did not come into the world on that silent, holy night ultimately to condemn the world but to save it and us along with it by the alchemy and power of God’s forgiving grace. When we allow ourselves to be embraced by that mercy, we are freed to turn from stuffing our hands with toys and trinkets and to take up the ministry of mercy to those in need. From the cradle in Bethlehem and from the cross on Calvary, Christ calls us to do just that.
In the words of an unknown author,
When the song of the angels is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the captive,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
Is it over? No, it’s not over. In fact, it is only the beginning—the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.