Faith Formation

Setting Christmas Free

December 16, 2020

Christmas has been tamed over the years.  Today, if we’re asked what the importance of Christmas is, or why we Catholics celebrate it for weeks after Christmas, we will be able to give a good answer:  it’s Jesus’ birthday.  And that’s obviously important, because without a birthday Jesus wouldn’t have been able to save us through His cross and resurrection.  So there, all you secular folks!  It’s more than lights and trees and songs and food:  it’s about Jesus!  But if that’s all the farther the answer goes, we’ve only untamed Christmas by a notch or two.

Think of all the elements that went into the Christmas story!  The personal drama, the political conspiracies, and the religious corruption are tragic, gripping, and exhausting.  Mary, as a betrothed woman, is asked to be Mother of God…but her pregnancy out of wedlock would get her stoned according to the Mosaic law (Dt. 22:23-24).  Joseph is dealing with months of figuring out what’s going on:  his bride is pregnant, but is she telling the truth?  If she is—oh, if she is!—how could he ever father God’s Son?  The emotional roller coaster had to be exhilarating (after all, the Messiah is finally here!), but extraordinarily stressful too.  And now he has to take a pregnant woman on foot to his ancestral home of Bethlehem.  At least we can hope the Immaculate Conception made that a little easier.

We know the story gets even more dramatic.  Mary gives birth in a barn and lays her baby to sleep in a feeding trough.  Shepherds arrive unannounced, convey the message of angels, and adore the newborn King.  What an extraordinary moment!  I can only wonder what those moments were like for Mary and Joseph.  It had to be an awe-inspiring time, to hold the God of all creation in their arms, offering to the passers-by an experience of the Lord that even the priests and Levites in Jerusalem could never fathom.

Speaking of the priests, at least some of them were conspiring with Herod to put the newborn Messiah to death.  Magi—sorcerers from the east—suddenly showed up on Herod’s doorstep wondering where the King of the Jews was born, to give him homage.  Now keep in mind, Herod thought of himself as the King of the Jews, claiming an illegitimate linage back to the great Jewish warriors who fought for freedom in the Maccabean revolt.  And he didn’t like anyone who threatened his rule.  So he asks some chief priests and scribes where the Messiah will be born.  Surely anyone with half a brain could have figured out his scheme, since Herod had executed several members of his family for fear that they would depose him.  But the chief priests and scribes cooperated, because if the Messiah had been born, he would depose them, too.

But even this take on Christmas doesn’t completely free it from being tamed, although it provides plenty of food for thought and prayer, and encouragement for those of us (read: all of us) who are struggling with problems bigger than we can imagine, trying to understand our worthiness to a heavenly calling, and questioning if God is even with us in the trial.

What then is the key to setting Christmas free?  It can only be appreciated when we understand the relationship between God and Israel.  The Old Testament is full of incredible experiences of God.  But it also has instances where this experience is deadly.  Think of the well-intentioned Uzzah who steadied the Ark of the Covenant, and died because he touched it (2 Sam. 6:3-7).  Not even Moses could look upon the face of the Lord and live (Ex. 33:18-20).  This is not because God is angry, vengeful, or moody, but rather because we are sinful, unclean, and therefore unable to be in His presence.  God can—and wants—to come very close to sinful humanity (one can even interpret the expulsion of Adam and Eve as God walking with them from Eden), but so long as man remains sinful by nature, the all-holy God cannot come any closer to his wayward children.  The most horrible part of this broken relationship is that the division between God and man isn’t just during earthly life:  it endures after death; heaven can only be inhabited by God and His good angels.

This shows the inconceivable nature of Christmas.  In times past, God had been with His people through drama, corruption, and conspiracy; think of David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and many more.  But this is different—completely, utterly new, in fulfillment of the Lord’s words in Isaiah 43:16-19, as He reflects on the Exodus:  “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters…see, I am doing something new!  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

What is new?  For centuries, God was known as the Creator, Law-giver, Judge, Almighty, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and by so many other incredible titles that shed light on our awesome God and what He’s done for us.  But it doesn’t tell the whole story of who God is.  In fact, none of these titles describe who God actually is—it’s only what He’s done.  And the relationship between God and His people, benevolent as it was, was that of king and subject, or shepherd and sheep:  there was always a division between God and His people.  Therefore, there was no way to know who God is.  There was no way to know, that is, until God did something completely, utterly new.

In Christ, God became one of His people!  The king became a subject, the master a slave, the shepherd a lamb!  This is the deepest reality of the meaning of Christmas:  the division between God and His people was at an end.  “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.  As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also and heir, through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).  An heir of what?  Heaven!

The insurmountable was finally conquered by the perfect union of God and man, Jesus Christ.  (And remember, this wouldn’t have been possible without preparation in the Immaculate Conception, or else Mary would have wound up like Uzzah.)  In Christ, we see God for who He is:  an eternal Father.  And we can see, in Jesus’ prayer life, how this Father is more intimate, intense, committed, and loving than even the greatest fathers here on earth.  This reveals the motive for the Father sending His Son.  After the fall of Adam and Eve, how could a good Father ever sit around while His children on earth suffer, separated from Him?  So immediately He sets about saving us.  He knew the process of bringing us back would be a long, painstaking struggle that would tear His Heart apart—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”—but if good earthly fathers would do absolutely anything they could for their children, Christ reveals to us that there is absolutely nothing that would ever stop God the Father from saving you.  And where weak earthly fathers would fail in this impossible task, God shows the full strength of His almighty power in the love that couldn’t allow His children to be separated from Him.

So this is Christmas:  the almighty Father tearing through the heavens to send the Son to earth, making the impossible possible, doing something incredibly, utterly new.  The God we could never approach has come to us, but in a way as never before:  as one of us!  And if He was now one of us, the separation between God and His people could divide no more.  It marked the beginning of the end of sin, suffering, illness, death, and evil.  Our Father was determined to never let us be separated again.  So He reveals His Heart, His Son to us, so that we no longer trust in weak selves, but in Him, our almighty Father.