Lots of things strike me as strange about Christmas. Sometimes the things people (particularly Christians) do are just bizarre.
Some of these things are the songs – think about “We Three Kings”. There probably weren’t 3 kings, the bible doesn’t specify a number. Even so, it’s only at Christmas (and easter, perhaps) that we sing songs that are primarily narrative rather than songs of explicit praise. Consider “Away in a Manger”. This is less common to sing in church services (in my experience), but one of the lines goes like this; “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Really? Did Jesus seriously not cry? If he was a healthy little dude, then he probably did. There’s no point making Jesus out to be a weird, creepy baby just because he is God.
The music is not just limited to the songs we sing in church though. People love to give the cheesy, overdone music another round. I’m sad to say that I love this; it’s not great music, and it’s way overworked, but there’s something great about it as well. As I’m writing this I can vaguely hear a hammed-up Christmas ballad, wafting it’s way along the street from a few houses up; it’s hard to hear amongst raindrops, but the slightly mournful sound of the thin radio speakers from a distance seems to have a certain irony with the grey Christmas day. Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special. This is one of those classics. Every time, despite the slightly unorthodox pronunciation of “gave” and “save”, people love this song. At least, I hope someone loves this song – because they’re certainly going to hear it a lot. Does he give his heart away foolishly every year? Regardless, it doesn’t even make sense.
The idea of Christmas trees. This is awesome, but kind of strange. I know there’s heritage to it, but chopping down a tree and keeping it alive in a bucket of water so you can put gifts beneath it? Weird thing to do, at least in Australia, where that kind of tree isn’t the most prominent of species. That said, the tree is one of my favourite things of the season.
Perhaps the mother of all weird things; Santa. How did the legacy of St. Nicholas get to where it is? Yeah, I know, marketing campaign etc. etc., but It’s strange. St Nick was one of the dudes who signed off on the Nicene Creed, way back when Constantine changed the stance of the Roman Empire and called the first council. Tradition holds that he slapped a dude who was promoting the Arian heresy. He was also known for his acts of unmerited kindness, and the giving of gifts. Here was a man who was generous in spirit, and uncompromising in his faith and theology. Some sort of a loony grin graces my face when I think about this; our modern St. Nick has been tumble-dried in the Christmas machine a couple too many times; we’ve retained the less important elements of his character. Even so, it’s weird that he was such a folk figure, so many hundreds of years after his death, that he could even be used by Coca Cola for marketing, and pumped out as the fat red man.
Cheesy Christian cliches must, I suppose, have their place in Christmas. It’s Jesus birthday. Jesus is the best Christmas present of all. What are we going to do for Jesus this Christmas? They must be said, and far be it from me to denigrate that the gospel is, in it’s essence, so simplistically beautiful, and has a stripped-back profundity that means a child’s faith is not only legitimate, but exemplary. Even so, sometimes these phrases make me cringe. If it’s a church service for adults, we can probably move on to something a little more substantial; grace, perhaps. These are not such a big deal. The one that gets me is when we say “Jesus was born at Christmas, 2012 years ago.” Come on Christians, we all know that Jesus wasn’t born on 25 December, and it was somewhere between 4 and 6 BC. Let’s just get our facts straight. At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. We don’t need to say it happened at Christmas.
There are, quite frankly, a bunch more things about Christmas that are weird. Perhaps I have seemed to be like a budding Grinch; I’ll be the next one to store up my quirks for 53 years until I flip out and steel the Christmas cheer. Friends, I am just a stickler for some realism at Christmas. The reason for this is that I believe God’s grace to us in Christ is the best news in the world. Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, reign and immanent return are powerful reasons to celebrate. So, so powerful. Here is love, vast as an ocean. Here is the man that all can see, as love and life eternally. Here is God, brought near in flesh, as saving sacrifice in death. Here is Christ, our fabled king, died and risen, now reigning. Here is love, and here is grace; see this all in Jesus’ face.
Jesus was born that night. He lived an incredible life, and died that God might be just and justifier. But I think it is easy to forget that it did not all start with the birth of Jesus. It is normal to delve into the prophetic history of Israel, and consider the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of Messianic hope. Praise God! Yet it is not merely the advent of the Messiah; Israel had several Messiah’s, several “sons of God” in the Messianic sense. But this is also the advent of God in human flesh; the God-man. The second person of the Trinity was sent to earth, to bring the grief and anguish of Sin upon himself. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. God the Son laid down his life, and took the condemnation of all those who turn to him for salvation.
This Christmas, as any other, I have heard and seen many excerpts from the Nativity, and from Isaiah 9. For me, this year, it has been important to remember this segment of Philippians:
…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
God became one of us, that night. That is far and away the strangest part of Christmas. What great love. I’m a stickler for realism at Christmas. God’s grace to us is far better than anything we can pull out at Christmas once a year. The incarnation, where God becomes man, to fulfil his plans to adopt us as his children, is a great thing to celebrate this and every Christmas.
What great grace is that in Christ, that God may come to give us life.
What great love is that in Christ that Sin has come to lose its bite.
What great grace is that in Christ that infant born is truth and light.
What great love is that in Christ that saves us by his sacrifice.
What great grace is that in Christ whose agony put death aright.
What great love is that in Christ; God made flesh. What love in Christ.