Christmas Thoughts: A.D. 2012
I attended two church services on Christmas Eve this year, in addition to playing (or rather, attempting to play) some Christmas hymns for a small group of people earlier in the afternoon. That’s three Christmas-related activities in one day, and considering my age and the number of years in which I’ve been involved to some degree with “religious” activities, it’s safe to say that I’ve heard the pertinent messages a lot of times. I think it’s possible for those messages to just go in one ear and out the other, for me and for a lot of people.I heard one sermon in particular this year which focused on the original recipients of the Nativity announcement (that is, a group of Judean shepherds who lived approximately 2000 years ago). Some thoughts started going through my mind, and I decided to put them on paper... or flash drive, anyway.
Luke’s Gospel account states that once these shepherds had gotten past the initial fear of being approached by angels, they went to find the baby Jesus personally. There is no mention of hesitation on their part, so this must have been a pretty important event to them. But why would it be?
At the church service I’m referencing, some of the historical information about that time period in Judea was reviewed, and perhaps you’re familiar with it. The Jews were in subjection to the Roman Empire, and hadn’t ever fully recovered from being conquered by the Babylonians in about 586 B.C. They had been a vassal nation to a number of subsequent powers for roughly 600 years (and the Northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered even earlier). The idea of a Messiah - a liberator - would have been pretty exciting from that sort of national perspective.
However, the angels didn’t appear to the political leadership, or to a fledgling group of militants, or to any powerful and influential people; they appeared to shepherds. At church, there was some speculation as to the possibility that no person living at that time, including the shepherds or even Mary and Joseph, could have imagined what this Savior was really coming to do. Not knowing the minds of the people who were present, I can't say for sure – although Scripture seems to indicate to me that some who were humble and observant may have had more of an idea than they’ve been credited for. One gathers from reading elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel that Elizabeth and Mary, as well as Simeon and Anna, probably had significant insight. Certainly the prophet Isaiah had possessed it hundreds of years before, and his prophesies were publicly known. And if the shepherds themselves had only been imagining a political or military rescue, the idea of a baby Savior might actually have been somewhat disappointing; after all, the birth of a deliverer would mean a wait of at least another 20 or 30 years before an actual deliverance. Granted, to an oppressed nation, even this much might have been cause for plenty of excitement. But a long-term and more all-encompassing perspective would have been necessary, I think, to maintain any level of interest.
In any case, I thought about the fact that the only way to really get excited about the idea of a Savior is to realize one’s own need to be saved from something. Regardless of how extensive the shepherds’ understanding was, they had enough of an inclination about the ramifications of this announcement to get motivated to go see the baby. The news mattered to them, and they were drawn to Christ. Contrast their response with that of King Herod (mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew) when he heard from the Wise Men about the birth of this King of the Jews: he feigned interest and then initiated a widespread campaign of infanticide to try to wipe out the new king. Apparently the last thing he wanted was to be “saved” from his present situation.
By the way, even if you feel a bit detached from the idea of Jesus as Savior – or if you’ve never even heard the story or thought about it much – there’s no question that the general concept should be familiar. The theme has been ubiquitous in mythology and storytelling right up to the present day. Think about it: Harry Potter arrives on the scene circa 1998, his coming having been prophesied beforehand, to destroy the power of the most evil wizard in history and bring some peace to the magical (and even to the muggle) world. In another story, a young man named Neo is brought out of the Matrix (also following a prophecy), to bring an end to a longstanding war against diabolical digitized oppression and almost universal human delusion. In a third popular tale, a displaced wanderer named Aragorn, descended from a long and nearly forgotten line of kings, rises up to take a newly re-forged sword and to lead the world of free men against the darkness of Sauron’s kingdom. Ancient and contemporary imitations abound, and some are better than others; often they are riddled to different degrees with faults and partial truths. Still, in these tales, the common people who are present at the time of the Chosen One's arrival are invariably excited at the prospect of rescue and salvation. And we, the moviegoers and book-readers, also feel excited and inspired. We flock to theaters in droves to pay ten dollars for the movie (and about another hundred for the popcorn and soda), or we dress up in costume to go and wait for the midnight release of the newest novel, so we can see, hear, and experience. Meanwhile every Christmas – and on any day in between Christmases – we have free access to the master blueprint, to the Story that inspired all such stories (at least partially). Do we take advantage of this opportunity?
What is our reaction to the news, especially when we may have heard this message about 40 years in a row? Is it excitement? Is it hostility, or apathy, or complacency? Is it a mild critical interest toward what some say is a largely fabricated account? Do we even listen to it at all anymore, or would we prefer to just get the mandatory, traditional Nativity story out of the way so we can move on to a more immediately gratifying (and verifiably false) story about some guy who comes down our chimney to give us stuff?*
I figure that the only way to keep alive the type of excitement that the shepherds felt is to keep in mind my desperate need for salvation; to always maintain a humble awareness of my personal frailty and incompleteness without a close and redeeming relationship with God. This certainly includes a desire for a new government, and that concept does in fact go hand-in-hand with what Jesus came to do... eventually. In a year when numerous kindergarteners and their teachers have been shot and no one really seems to have a legitimate clue as to what to do about it; a year in which Idaho’s capital city has just approved an ordinance that would require incarceration for those who “discriminate” against perverts; a year which is closing with continual reminders about a precipitous fiscal cliff; the idea of a perfect king sounds pretty good. But I have to keep reminding myself that if I really want to be a citizen of that king’s perfect kingdom, then I have to approach him with the same kind of humility and reverence that the shepherds had. If there’s hidden anger within me, because this Savior is a threat to my comfort, or my material wealth, or my perceived power, my chance of being a part of that nation is zero. They are equally low if I’m apathetic and complacent. What is the likelihood of being included in the renewal of all things, if the attitude toward its pending approach is, “So what? What I really need right now is the new iPad!" (or whatever gadget is popular this year… I’m a little out of it when it comes to tech stuff; sorry). And I know that for me there’s a real possibility of that attitude, even at Christmastime. I’ve been filling myself with food. My apartment is warm and my futon is cozy. I have one set of drums (which I’ve never played), two bicycles (one of which I've almost never ridden) and three guitars (two of which I almost never play). I have a spare room, two TVs, numerous CD’s that I’ve never listened to, and a new candle warmer with three varieties of scented wax (that is a pretty nice little unit, though, I must say!). I still lack a partridge in a pear tree, though if my neighbor got those two items, perhaps I’d start wanting them too (and probably a bigger one of each). I don’t know that any of those things are wrong in and of themselves, but they do tend to insulate me from my real needs; they can make me forgetful and lethargic. None of it provides deep joy or inner peace, or forgiveness of my many sins. Material accumulation means nothing if my spiritual needs aren’t satisfied. And they aren’t going to be satisfied if I don’t seek to have them satisfied, and I’m not going to seek if I don’t feel the need. But the need is there whether I feel and acknowledge it or not. Inspiring events and emotionally moving incidents which remind me of the need are valid vehicles for spiritual change, but they don’t come for the asking; they happen when they happen. One must take advantage of them, and thereafter continue to practice what they have revealed.
Thankfully, even after all of these years of Christmas services, my spirit is not so dead as to be unmoved by the message of a God who would take the form of a helpless and innocent baby, and then maintain that innocence all the way into adulthood, when he would be tortured and put to a gruesome death for someone like me. But to keep and increase my interest, the only thing I’ve found that seems to work is repeated communion with that Savior and with other people who recognize their need for him. Without that interaction, there is the inevitability of the message getting stale to me. That’s only human nature; our Christmas presents will only remain new and thrilling to us for a while, unless we nurture continuing involvement with them. In the same way, New Year’s resolutions regarding weight loss, or the abandonment of tobacco, or the improvement of relationships (or whatever the particulars may be) will fall by the wayside without regular scheduled maintenance. It would be nice to be excited about the Christmas message of the real Chosen One coming to set everything right, not only every December, but all year ‘round. I will make that my resolution.
*A note about the story of Santa Claus:
I find it interesting that in lieu of the genuine and original story that inspired Christmas, societies have created and popularized another one (said to be partially inspired by truth) that contains some of the same elements, albeit on a temporal scale only. What does Santa do, according to these legends? He arrives in a miraculous manner, being fully aware of the deeds of every person, to reward with gifts those who have behaved well, and to chasten (or humiliate?) with lumps of coal those who have behaved poorly.
The Bible tells us that Jesus will one day return, to render a judgment to every person according to the deeds done in their earthly lives, whether good or evil. To those who were good, he will give the gift of eternal life, while the evil will receive eternal punishment. A large percentage of the population has chosen to substitute for the real story a fairy tale that only concerns some short-term implications. I think this says a lot about human nature. Why not just tell the real story? It’s a better one, and you’ll never have to feel guilty about deceiving children.