December 23, 2005

Always Winter, Never Christmas

Catholic feast days are almost always depressing. They generally celebrate the early death, torture, persecution, by way of some pretty gruesome tactics and pretty awful people. They aren't really all that happy, Christmas included.

As far as special occasions go, for all of the hype and twinkle, the Christmas story is really kind of a downer. The story is rife with pain and suffering, sacrifice and the murder of innocents. From Amy Welborn:

Mary, with a scandalous pregnancy. Joseph, courageous enough to take her on despite it. A birth among farm animals. The threat of death, from the very start, necessitating flight. Mary, told by the prophet Simeon that because of her son, her soul will be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35).

We view the elements of the story in a nostalgic haze — how sweet to be born with the goats. But is it? Is it sweet? Would you want to give birth among goats?

How charming that Mary and Joseph had to wander before and after the birth of the child. Charming until you remember the reasons why, the doors shut in the face of a heavily pregnant woman, the threat of death from a jealous king.

Look at it closely, with clear eyes. At every turn in this story of this baby there is threat and fear and powers circling, attempting to strike at the light.

Better still, Mary, likely only about 14 at the time, was a child having a child: the kind of unexpected situtation that we, here and now, might automatically suggest abortion for. Just days after her giving birth in secret, Herod, in an effort to pre-empt the prophecy, kills off hundreds of innocent children, thinking that Jesus was among them. Through the ordeal, the players in the Christmas pageant endure some of the worst that soceity has to offer--discrimination, agression, and genocide--with only a crucifixion and death to look toward.

Of course, nobody said that being a disciple of God was ever going to be easy. Jesus said himself that the greatest gift wasn't a digital camera or two pounds of fruitcake, it was laying down ones life for ones friends: the ultimate price; an ultimate sacrfice. Being a follower of Christ guarantees an existance that is, in a word, going to suck. Christian life is not an easy life. Mother Theresa was known for saying that God may not give her anything that she can't handle, but she wished He wouldn't trust her so much: to stand by your beliefs has always, in religion, meant taking a risk that you would suffer because of them. Christian martyrs lost their heads and their lives. Christians today bear the cost of damaged reputations, raging atheist fury, and the knowledge that the natural law that they order their lives by is no longer the way that society operates, with its pervasive relativism, humanism, and moral bankruptcy. To be faithful in this world, is to almost be alone.

The world that Jesus entered on that remarkable night was no picnic: the years before had seen flood and famine, Sodom and Gomorrah; the world that Jesus left, none either. In the two thousand years that have passed since His death, we've managed to find the same problems, the same hardships, and even new and more disturbing revelations: abortion, nuclear war, abject poverty, greed and, to top it all off, the growing threat of secularism. Around every corner is another mile.

But in the end, that is exactly why we celebrate Christmas: the knowledge that, before this Child was born, the future held no great expectations, no light. Before that baby was welcomed into this world, human life was all that there was--the eternal life and the promise of heaven locked within the gates of Eden, shelved away as the price of our human sin. While the world fretted in darkness, there came great hope in the form of a newborn; God had given the world a second chance. The hope of the ages had paid off, in the most modest of circumstances.

Christ knew that some day he would have to offer himself on the altar of death, in the ultimate repayment of our debts, so that we might forever hold within our hearts the promise that human suffering, the trials and woes of the human existence would be merely transitory.

Because a controversial little child was born among livestock, our suffering has an end.

Coming out of a showing of Narnia last night--a last minute effort to regain some holiday cheer after a day of fighting crowds and a week of nervous stomachs and law finals, and little disappointments--I kept replaying in my head a single scene, Lucy speaking to Mr. Tumnus upon their first meeting. The faun is mentioning that there is no summer any longer in Narnia, and Lucy turns to him with an open and optimistic heart: winter she says, is alright. After all, Christmas is in winter! No, says the faun, glumly. It is always winter in Narnia, but it is never Christmas.

Over the last few weeks, battles have raged in this country over whether Christmas has any legitimate place in our modern society--saying the words Merry Christmas has become a declaration of allegiance, and a battle cry. Some would say that to take this much effort to keep something in the public square is useless and maybe a little hypocritical, but without this kind of effort, the forces of this world that seek to banish Christmas from the public eye would succeed little by little. As the country gets a good laugh at the expense of the school that bans red paper plates from their "holiday" celebration, the secularization of the Christmas season succeeds just a little bit more. Without the effort, the activism, and the belief that Christmas must stay, there is no question that it will disappear, which is, after all, the real goal, though the motivation may be entirely a political comment on the role of religion and its conspicuous absence in the most liberal of ideologies, and only incidentally theological. The eventual outcome, despite the means is exactly the same: without attempts to rescue the outward manifestations of the entirely Christian holiday, it will be winter in this country, maybe this world, but never Christmas.

Christmas comes without ribbons, it comes without tags. In the bleak midwinter, when the snow has just become annoying and the temperatures are dipping below the freezing mark, when the days are the shortest, and the sky is overcast, the trees barren, in the bleakest moment in world history, surrounded by pain and suffering and the worst of the human condition, Christmas was, and is, a beacon of hope, a reminder that our time in this place is only temporary. After all, if He helped us out once, He can help us out again.

It may not be the happiest story when its told in Bible passages, but Christmas is the happiest of holidays. God came to rescue us in the moment of our greatest need. We fight the human battles, but He fought the ultimate war against sin and death. It may not be the most wonderful of bedtime stories, but its the most comforting of thoughts. It is not always winter on this Earth: we have Christmas.

We have hope.

Cross-posted from American Princess.

Posted by E. M. Zanotti at December 23, 2005 02:53 PM

Merry Christmas

Posted by: Myron at December 25, 2005 11:59 PM