When I was a little girl, I loved looking through our Christmas cards every day. They piled up on the dining room table until they reached critical mass, and then dad would string them on either side of the archway between the living room and dining room. The Jesus cards were the best. I liked them better than Santa because they were always shiny, though a little confusing. Jesus in gold foil. Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. I never did understand what a swaddle was, or a manger for that matter. I just took the pictures at face value and embraced the mystery.
I still remember a card with shepherds and wise men, guided by a massive, glittery star, all trudging through the snow to the manger where they met up with the shepherds. It was spectacular. I never stopped to ask if there was snow in a place called Bethlehem, or if the camels got cold in the snow, or why the star was so big or how the wise men and shepherds all just happened to show up at the same time. Oh, and there was an angel on the roof in a shiny dress and a little drummer boy wearing a hat. I wondered if his noisy drum would scare the baby but didn’t question whether he was actually there. After all, there was a whole song written about him; that settled it.
But on these cards, they would all bow together and lay down gifts before the sweet little Jesus child who, of course, never cried even though he was laying in scratchy hay, surrounded by large, scary, smelly animals. My baby brother squalled all the time, and he was born into much finer circumstances than baby Jesus.
And there was poor Joseph, who always looked a little sad to me, and the saintly Mary – who sported a glowing halo and wore blue and looked nothing like my poor mother did after giving birth to my younger brothers.
The greeting card industry sanitized Christmas; everyone was clean, happy, well behaved, and playing nicely together. It didn’t have to be biblical; it didn’t have to make sense; it just had to make you feel sentimental. Nowadays, even Santa kneels at the manger, which I suppose is no weirder than an ox and lamb keeping time with the drummer boy. Pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.
For me, Christmas was a safe holiday. No matter what I had done in previous months, on December 1st, my dad granted immunity. Like the year I got a C on my report card – in home economics. It wasn’t the grade that got me in trouble; it was the dramatic scene played out at school as I paced the halls weeping hysterically, telling my teachers I couldn’t go home because my dad would kill me. He had to leave work to come and get me – now that was trouble. But the slate was always wiped clean, just as the Christmas cards started to arrive, assuring me that everything was going to be okay and the world was snowy and bright and safe and warm and forgiving and Jesus was the reason for the season, whatever that meant.
The truth is that on the day Jesus was born, a cosmic battle raged in the heavenlies. Revelation, chapter 12 tells us of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is pregnant with a male child who is destined to rule the nations. As she gives birth, a great dragon with seven heads and ten horns stands in front of her, waiting to devour the child. But the child is rescued, snatched away to the throne of God.
The next words are: Then there was a war in heaven. To the rulers of world systems, principalities, and powers, Jesus the Christ was the most dangerous child ever born, and his birth was the most revolutionary event in history.
He was born into a world not unlike our own – filled with darkness, fear, grief, cruelty, oppression, division, and injustice. The characters in his birth story are not the glowing, perfectly clad saints popular culture has thrust on us. They are real people, ordinary people like you and me, confronted with impossible, unbelievable circumstances. Frail, vulnerable human beings making tough choices and choosing the path of extraordinary surrender at a high personal cost.
It may not be Hallmark-worthy, but it’s the gospel truth.
Simeon cradled the baby in his arms and praised God and prophesied, saying:
“Lord and Master, I am your loving servant, and now I can die content, for your promise to me has been fulfilled. With my own eyes I have seen your Word, the Savior you sent into the world. He will be glory for your people Israel,and the Revelation Light for all people everywhere!” Mary and Joseph stood there, awestruck over what was being said about their baby. Simeon then blessed them and prophesied over Mary, saying: “A painful sword will one day pierce your inner being, for your child will be rejected by many in Israel. And the destiny of your child is this: he will be laid down as a miracle sign for the downfall and resurrection of many in Israel. Many will oppose this sign, but it will expose to all the innermost thoughts of their hearts before God.” Luke 2:28-34 (Passion Translation)