21 December 2012
There is a reason for the child who has come to bring peace upon the earth. As the nativity story reveals throughout its telling, the Incarnation was not a simple once-for-all conquering of all things evil for the immediate reign of God's kingdom. Mary is told that she would have a sword pierce her own soul, and this child is said to be cause of many who would fall in Israel. The gospel which follows is complete with sacrifice, both in the teachings of Jesus and the life he himself surrendered. The story of Christmas requires great sacrifice among those who choose to accept its call even to this day.
We must accept the challenge of Christmas if it is to have any impact on our world today. Winning cultural battles over plastic nativity scenes, or being able to publicly say "Merry Christmas," or have pageantry which (rightly) connects Christmas with Jesus (imagine the shock!) will not change the real problem with our world. The solution is not found in our traditions of commemorating the event of Christ's birth, but in the birth itself!
The challenge of Christmas is, ultimately, a summons to discipleship - the long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson defines it. There is no significance to this child in a manger without the savior hanging lifeless upon the cross. The ultimate goal of this story is resurrection to new life, which can only come through death. Here is a relatively unpopular, but quite significant, piece of the Christmas story. This is not a wintry celebration of all things new and innocent, but the beginning of the long road to renewing heaven and earth. Anything short misses the gospel message.
The reason why we must sacrifice our own lives in this story is because God has suffered, beginning with the Incarnation, on our behalf. Becoming a part of the human story is not something which the Divine begrudges, but one that is a certain amount of suffering on the part of the godhead nonetheless. Jesus' teaching shows us how to participate in this new kingdom, and his self-humbling unto death makes a path to new life for all the world. God's reign could have come with all of the power and prestige that we expect of a kingdom, but that would not accomplish the necessary redemption of creation. In order to restore heaven and earth its very DNA had to be altered, and the human piece is no exception to this.
The cradle is overshadowed by the cross, and it would be good for us as modern believers to keep the ultimate aim in our Christmas observance, and the magical wonder of new life in our Easter celebrations. The two are not to be divorced. But, truth be told, their divorce has indeed happened to a certain degree, with a great detriment to the church's ability to be a witness for the gospel during this season of the year. Once more, the gospel is not winning the right to publicly wish someone a Christmas greeting that probably isn't very sincere in the first place. For us, Christmas observance is the participation in God's kingdom as a means of announcing its arrival. Quite Isaianic of us (and the grown-up baby) if you think about it.