On balance, I think the Christmas holiday is a good thing. This, despite the rampant commercialization, the secularization, and the demythologizing. This, despite ‘works righteous’ theology in which Santa only brings gifts to the ‘good boys and girls,’ which is especially ironic given that Santa is associated with a gift of God that only has value for the bad boys and girls, and is useless for the ‘good’ ones. (Mark 2:17) So be bad for goodness sake.
Yes, despite all that, it is clear that the holiday resonates with people near and far, of various backgrounds and ideologies, and so on. Even people otherwise hostile to Christianity can’t help but get into the ‘spirit of the season.’ It is an annual encounter with Myth, and by virtue of that, I think, we are better for it. And yet, I have one more thing to add to my list of things that I don’t like about Christmas.
Namely, the focus on Jesus as “holy infant, tender and mild.” This, through Hallmark and the inertia born of not really thinking clearly, has come, within the Christian Church itself, to epitomize what God’s gift to man consists of: a crisp winter night, the snow dulling the sounds of your feet crunching across the field, the stars twinkling down, and voila! An encounter with the Ethereal Numinous! The God who loves you so much that he came as a little child, who pats you on the back and says, “There, there!” All is warm and cozy, and a feeling of peace falls upon you like heavy, wet blanket. Why, if only we could bottle this sentiment, we could have world peace on the morrow!
There is your annual encounter with Myth, but forgotten is the fact that the peace actually obtained by this precious infant was obtained by virtue of being murdered, hung on an instrument of torture. As his blood dried on the rocky soil beneath him, his followers scattered to the four winds. They had expected peace, too. It was a peace that was going to be obtained by the son of David coming at last to restore his kingdom. So it was that when Jesus had indicated to his disciples that the time was finally night, all they could think to do was say, “Here are two swords!” (Luke 22:38)
You can almost see Jesus shaking his head, sadly. Even now they did not understand his mission.
The world is unquestionably a violent place, filled to the brim with rape and war. Man strives against man, kingdom against kingdom, and so on. Christmas is ostensibly about bringing reconciliation between warring parties (“peace on earth, goodwill towards men…”), but in the real story of Christmas, God came to earth to end one specific war. It is the war between God and Man.
Man has rebelled against God. God has every right to put down the rebellion without mercy. But, even while seeking to be merciful, God knows he cannot obtain real, lasting peace, without someone, somewhere along the way, DYING. The rebels cannot be won over by negotiation. They are too far gone for that. How, then will peace be won? In the full story of Christmas, the ‘gift’ is this: GOD dies. Instead of us.
And here we come upon an interesting part of the real story of Christmas that flies in the face of our soft sentiments. We focus on the baby Jesus as meek and mild, and extend this soft sentiment right on through to the rest of his story, where Jesus is thrust upon the cross. We come away with the idea that peace, and being people of peace, means being soft-spoken doormats, allowing everyone and their mother do as they please with you. You know, like Jesus before Pilate. Right?
In point of fact, Jesus was a tough dude. He was not ‘tender and mild.’ In fact, it is precisely because he was a tough dude that makes his sacrifice laudable. If a weak man gets pushed around by a strong man, no one is impressed, for the simple reason that a weak man can’t very well stop people from pushing him around. If a strong man gets pushed around by a weak man, though, we know that the strong man is holding back. He’s using discretion. He has a larger agenda that transcends the current humiliation that he is enduring by allowing the weak man to have his way.
Many writers have pointed out that Jesus was a carpenter and as a consequence, probably a strong man. Few, however, would suggest that anyone was afraid of him. Nonetheless, if you look at the story of Jesus’ arrest and trial, it is clear that he was feared. All signs pointed to him not being a mere carpenter. Remember, he had performed many miracles and had just raised a man from the dead. This is the man they set out to arrest. Wouldn’t you fear him?
Did you ever notice what happens in John 18:4-8? Jesus is about to be arrested. He asks “Who are you looking for?” and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus replies, “I am,” “they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
Jesus is in charge, even here.
When Peter comes to his defense, Jesus reminds him that he needs no help from any mortal: “Do you think that I couldn’t ask my Father, and he would even now send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus told the Pharisees right to their face that he sits at the “right hand of Power” and will come again “with the clouds of the sky.” To Pilate, who thought he was something, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews.”
The strong man did not put up a fight because he had a larger agenda. It is described succinctly in Ephesians 2:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Jesus never perceived of himself as weak. He did not lay down his life because he was powerless to resist. Jesus was not a panzy. He did not overwhelm Pilate, the Pharisees, Death, and the Devil, by being “wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Jesus knew full well that he could have instantly stopped the whole thing… easily… quickly… decisively. But this would not have won us real, lasting peace.
We spend a lot of time crying out for ‘peace,’ forgetting that, historically, whenever we obtain something that comes close to passing for ‘peace,’ it is brought about because somewhere down the line, the blood of man was shed by other men. It was always incomplete. The ‘peace’ that Man wins almost always contains within it the seeds of the next conflagration. We act as though peace can be won by hurling platitudes at each other, but in the real world, it never works that way. We have to work to maintain it and it nearly always requires powerful men exerting themselves violently against other powerful men.
The peace that God obtained for us is full and complete. But, this Christmas, we may wish to remember that it was still a peace that was won through violence and the shedding of blood–the blood of the most powerful man who has ever walked the planet.
The blood of Jesus, called the Christ.
Talk about a Myth to stir one’s soul! Fortunately for us, this is a Myth that is also true.