For many of us, I suspect, it gets harder each year to capture the mood of Christmas. About the only thing that still warms us is memories, memories of younger more naive days when lights and carols, Christmas trees and gifts, still excited us. For me, the very memories of myself as a child anticipating Christmas are a virtual Christmas in themselves. But we are adult now and so it seems in our world. Any joy of anticipation of Christmas is blunted by a commercialism which, like everything else in American life, is characterized by excess. By late October we are affronted by Christmas decorations, Santa Claus is around for all of November and in December we are force-fed a series of Christmas parties which rival the New York Marathon as an endurance test. Christmas, 1984, can we crank up any real joy and genuine celebration?
It is not easy. Commercialism is a minor obstacle. More serious is 1984 itself. Can we, amid all the cruel revelations of this year, warm up to a season of tinsel and festivity? Can we sing Joy to the World in the face of India and Ethiopia? Does it mean anything to speak of peace even as we stockpile nuclear bombs and as strikes and unemployment leave millions embittered? And what about all this fuss about a 2,000 year-old baby when thousands of babies have had their lives aborted this year in our own true north strong and free? Are there any silent nights left? Too many nights in 1984 were punctured by an unsilence.
Moreover there are our own personal tragedies: lost health, lost loves, lost jobs, lost time, the death of loved ones, tiredness and frustration. How do we celebrate the birth of a redeemer in a world which appears shockingly unredeemed and with hearts which feel so heavy and unredeemed? The Christmas story is the most unusually potent story ever told. God comes down from heaven, takes on human flesh and ultimately ends all suffering. That story has altered the entire course of human history. Its power is unmatched.
But its power to survive and affect depends upon its truth and healing power and that truth and healing power can easily be distorted and perverted. Christmas is an incredible event, something which must be celebrated with kisses and drinks all around, with tinsel and lights and songs of joy. Anyone who really understands Christmas will want to be involved in an exchange of gifts. But it is not a magical event, a Cinderella story without midnight. When we understand it, we might well want to string up lights and sing its meaning in joyful carols. But we will see at the same time that, at its centre, lies an humiliation, a pain and a death which is not unlike what is being experienced in India, Ethiopia, on the strike lines, and in our own wounded and bored hearts. Incarnation is not yet resurrection. Flesh in Jesus, as in us, is human flesh, vulnerable, weak, incomplete and needy. Painfully full of limit, suffering. Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth into these things, not his removal of them. He redeems limit, evil, sin and pain. They are not abolished. There is a difference.
For this reason we can celebrate Christ’s birth without in any way denying or trivializing the real evil in our world and the very real pain in our lives. Christmas is a challenge to celebrate while still in pain.
The incarnate God is called Emmanuel, a name which means God-is-with-us. That fact does not mean immediate festive joy. Our world remains unwhole and the wars, strikes, selfishness and bitterness linger. Our hearts too remain unwhole and pain lingers. For a Christian, just as for everyone else, there will be incompleteness, illness, senseless hurt, broken dreams, cold hungry lonely days of bitterness and a virtual lifetime of inconsummation. Reality has its harshness and Christmas does not ask us to make-believe. The incarnation does not promise us heaven on earth. It promises heaven in heaven. Here, on earth, it promises us something else – God’s presence in our lives. This presence redeems because it is the sense that God is with us that empowers us to give up bitterness, to forgive and to move beyond narcissism. When God is with us then pain and happiness are not exclusive of each other and the agonies and riddles of life do not exclude deep meaning and deep joy.
As Avery Dulles once said: “Incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather, it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.” George Orwell prophesied that 1984 would be a truly horrible year with torture, double-think and a broken human spirit characterizing our world. To some extent that is true. We are a long ways from being whole. We remain deeply in exile. However, I plan to celebrate Christmas 1984 heartily. Maybe I won’t feel the exact excitement I once felt as a child when I was so excited about tinsel, lights, Christmas carols, and special gifts and special food. Some of those feelings won’t crank up anymore. But something else does crank up, namely, the sense that God is with us in the flesh.
The word became flesh. That’s true, even for 1984 – so let’s have kisses and drinks all around.