Thursday, December 30, 2004

Putting Herod back into Christmas

I realize that Christmas is over. Lights are being removed from yards. Discarded trees litter the streets. People are getting back to "normal." Yet, Christmas isn't merely a day; it's a new reality. Jesus has come...and remains.

The following article, written by Joy Carrol Wallis, an Anglican Priest, was sent to me by Jan King, a good friend and reflective thinker. It's a reminder of what our culture has done to Christmas, and why Christians need to think more seriously about the gospel story. I hope it will give you pause to think about the redemptive work of Christ as we begin a new year.

How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card.... People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone's house for mulled wine and minced pies...all very English! Great memories.

But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, "the stable was warm and clean!"

But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It's interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus' entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of "Away in a Manger." Jesus is the perfect baby, and "No crying he makes...." My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.

In Britain there's a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of "Saviour's Day" reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, "Life can be yours on Saviour's Day, don't look back or turn away...." I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season's Christmas songs. When it came to "Saviour's Day," the writer said, "This song is OK, but there's no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn't got anything to do with Christmas at all!" A radio DJ in this country once said, "What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this." It's not a celebration of this "great" nation; it's about Jesus Christ. It's so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, "We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God."

Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke's account it's not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.

No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race.

But we don't want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let's not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.
Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That's how the church is described in scripture time and time again - not as the best and the brightest - but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

It's Been A While

I haven't posted a blog in a month. This is due in part to the busyness associated with the Christmas season, but primarily because I simply didn't have much to say. "Blogger's Block," I suppose. Before Christmas, however, I wanted to share some things about the implications of the incarnation.

Last evening, we held our annual candlelight service, which is always moving for me. There's something about a darkened room being illuminated by small flickers of light that fittingly represents the coming of the Light of the World. As usual, and under Greg Miles' exceptional leadership, LifeSong did a superb job in capturing the essence of what this means. I don't say it enough, but LifeSong is such a blessing to CrossBridge. And, Greg Miles is the force behind it.

At our candleight service, I shared the following:

In his introduction to The Message, a popular translation of the New Testament, Eugene Peterson made the following observation.

The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe—seemingly too good to be true.

But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots—had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.

As we enter into the Christmas season, these words by Peterson are extremely relevant and worthy of sustained reflection. We must resist allowing the consumerist frenzy associated with this season to eclipse the astonishing events that Christmas represents for the Christian. It signals that God did “enter history in a personal way,” demonstrating that God truly is “on our side.” Yet is also reminds us that God’s continued presence means things have changed and that everything must be “re-centered, re-imagined and re-thought.”

As we enter the holiday season let’s take some time to intentionally reflect on what it means personally to us that God has entered, not only history, but our hearts. What needs to be re-centered or re-thought in our lives? Anything need to be re-imagined? God came to rule in the hearts of women and men—the very domain of His kingdom. May Christmas be a time when we acknowledge His lordship and re-centered our lives around Him. In so doing, we embrace the true gift of Christmas, and re-enter the beginning of a new era for our lives.

My prayer is that all will come to know the One Who knows us intimately and is forever for us. May Christmas signal the beginning of a new era for you.