Culturally Christmas is the feast of western Christendom. We have so many beautiful traditions and so many wonderful Christmas songs that Easter has had little chance in maintaining its traditional role as the central feast in the Christian faith.
These songs and traditions work so well because they touch key concerns in our lives. Christmas comes when our world is at its darkest, when coldness grips our very soul. It is a lot more than romanticism when we proclaim in song after song that Jesus is born, not simply at Christmas, but in the middle of the night at Christmas. And it’s snowing! We northerners would not know what Christmas means, but for it taking place in the middle of winter.
No child needs to be taught the meaning of darkness. Nor the dangers of the cold. While the church never did know exactly what time of year Jesus was actually born, it knew exactly what it was doing when it called us to celebrate his birth right after the winter solstice.
In urging us to celebrate exactly what we fear — our coldness and darkness — the church was being perfectly true to all the evangelists’ accounts of the Saviour’s birth.
Matthew, who throughout his Gospel was fighting the authoritarianism of the scribes and pharisees (both inside and outside the Christian community), proclaims Jesus as the Royal One, our King. The only times our evangelists ever proclaim Jesus as king are when he was a baby and when he was “helpless” before Pilate. Hardly times when he would lord it over anyone!
Matthew, who treasured his Jewish roots, has Jesus fleeing off to big bad Egypt soon after his birth. Jesus, the refugee, was hardly the Messiah those dedicated to the status quo were looking for.
Matthew, who more than any other New Testament writer calls us to holiness and perfection, packs into his genealogy of the Lord one scandal after another. Again, hardly the way to impress the righteous of this world. Luke follows a similar path. He does not make Christ just poor. He portrays him as the poorest of the poor, the son of nobodies. Joseph is landless. Without his patrimony he is forced to work for others — a guarantee at that time for remaining in dire poverty.
So poor does Luke make the Babe, that in his Gospel all poor folk, in their very poverty, become icons — sacraments — of the Saviour. Where Matthew has a Babe as ruler, Luke has the Poor One as the new power in the world.
Mary, who sings of routing the proud and of pulling down the mighty from their thrones, assumes her role in the story of our redemption by having a sword pass through her heart. Suffering (by seeing her Son as a sign that the world rejects), not royal banquets, is to be her lot.
In the story of Jesus the sword will play a role quite different from that of its counterpart in the world. Jesus, the pacifist, will rebuke Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant; power in the kingdom is more about turning the other cheek than about overpowering one’s opponent.
John sums up the Christmas story in one short phrase: The Word was made flesh. (Flesh in the Bible, we must remember, is not a biological term denoting tissue or muscle; it speaks of weakness, of misguided foolishness. It is the antithesis of spirit, the opposite of being wise and powerful.)
Any way we look at it, Jesus was born at the bottom, permeated through and through with the ambiguities of human existence.
To be sure, all our evangelists in their own way speak of the Saviour’s divinity. But not the sort of divinity a church proud of its holiness would delight in proclaiming; not the divinity a church convinced of its unchanging dogmas would take comfort in defending; not the divinity a church secure in its hierarchical structure would ever dream of advancing as illustrative of true government.
It is a divinity at home at the bottom, with sinners, with the powerless, with those lost in darkness. It is a totally new sacramental order. It is a divinity which we can touch precisely by coming to terms with our sinfulness, by admitting our utter helplessness to construct a meaningful life for ourselves, by confessing our blindness, that we do not have the final word about ourselves, our neighbours or our world.
Fully at home at the bottom, Jesus would never envision his followers or, collectively, his church as ever in this world being freed of their condition of flesh. When we proclaim Jesus in the flesh, we proclaim ourselves and our church as always being conditioned by flesh — by weakness and downright sinfulness.
Christmas, which celebrates our fear of darkness and coldness, assures us that this lowly state of ourselves and our church is not a bad thing. Rather than discourage us, it should free us: free us from being angry about ourselves or our church, free us to take our prejudices, our temptations, our fundamental imperfections to that very Lord who has shown us he is indeed perfectly at home with such things.
Jesus heals us by touching our sin in a most peculiar way. He enriches us by convincing us to truly feed the poor; he frees us by enabling us to unbind the fetters of the imprisoned; he makes us holy in our forgiving the sins of those who have sinned against us; he gives us a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom by our assuring our brothers and sisters of their glory.
None of these things can be done from on high. Jesus had to be born at the bottom.
Likewise, our church instinctively knew that the Saviour was born in the cold, in the middle of the night.