Writing can be an “omer of manna” — a reminder of who we were, where we’ve been and how God is working all things for our good. In that spirit, I share this piece that appeared on my blog last December.
Too often, the cataclysmic event celebrated at Christmas is simply reduced to gimcrack yard art from the 1980s.
But look closer at what happened that evening in Bethlehem and the invisible gifts of the night become clear.
Three gifts resonate with me this December.
In terms of people, Christmas focuses on the overlooked. Christmas makes us look at the forgotten and marginalized. From the lineage of the Christ child (which not only includes but draws attention to the adulterer, fornicator, prostitute, and immigrant) to the pivotal and counter-cultural role that women play in the story, Christmas gives the gift of destorying our prejudice. Now we shouldn’t fool ourselves– we’re all prejudiced. Tim Keller says that although someone may not be a bigot, everyone looks at someone and thinks “They’re the reason for the problems in the world.” Keller goes on:
Christmas is the end of snobbishness. Christmas is the end of thinking, Oh, that kind of person… Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you.
In terms of food (and agriculture), Christmas shows us that God cares about the physical world.
The scope of my lurking doubts about God’s goodness and sovereignty include food-security, drought, crop destruction and the death of livestock. Christianity doesn’t give a single all-encompassing answer for the problem of evil and suffering. But Christianity does offer a narrative that shows us that God cares.
Ross Douthat wrote the following in his New York Times Op-Ed piece after the 2012 Newtown tragedy:
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today… is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.
In terms of words, Christmas celebrates the Word becoming flesh… and the Word dwelling among us. Joseph “Skip” Ryan explains it this way:
The incarnation is the moving in of the eternal Word so that he utterly identifies with us in every way.
When we see the nativity scene, we witness the Word — the fullness of God and our human existence — coming to us. We’re given a story that enables us to make sense of all other stories– the broken, the beautiful, the mundane, the thrilling, the shameful.
These are the gifts I’m savoring this Christmas. These are the gifts that are changing the way I’m thinking about food, people and words. When I drive past a kitschy nativity scene this Christmas, these are the gifts I will see.