People, especially church people, like us, love to talk about the “true meaning” of Christmas. In the face of commercialism, I guess—just like melancholic old Charlie Brown and Linus in the famous Peanuts Christmas special—in the face of plastic trees and Santa Clauses, we raise our cry about the “true meaning” of Christmas.
“Keep Christ in Christmas,” shout the bumper stickers! In defense of this one “true meaning” people refuse to say “Happy Holidays” and put nativity scenes on their lawns like territorial flags planted into the scorched earth of our culture war. While others imply the other “true meaning” is simply charity and kindness. “Good will towards men,” they shout, as they write their checks to their charitable organizations to soothe their sin-sick consciences.
Well, here, in the midst of our COVID Christmas, I have to warn you: these flirtations with the “true meaning” of Christmas are dangerous.
The “true meaning” will rain on all your political parades. Because the difference between Republican and Democrat is so very small in reality—all our political parades are just about having things be cozy, safe and easy. But the true meaning of Christmas will upend us. The true meaning will grab us, and break us apart, and fill you with a kind of love you never thought possible.
I think this Pandemic has given us a taste of the “true meaning” of Christmas—this year we certainly have not gotten our way. Even though we have had some wonderful birthday, baby shower, and good-bye car parades… our proverbial parades have been thoroughly rained upon, haven’t they?
In the most grim sense, this Year Of Pandemic has meant death to over 300,000 Americans of all ages. And for the rest it has meant everything from grief to loneliness, from poverty to family chaos. This has not been a cozy year, or a safe year, or an easy year. It might feel like an awful mockery, even, to celebrate Christmas in a year like this. But then there’s that pesky thing called the “true meaning” of Christmas. The true meaning, which cares nothing for coziness, safety and personal happiness.
Luke writes, “Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” And she gave birth to her firstborn son and swaddled him in rags and laid him in the animal feedbox because there was no place for them at the travelers’ shelter.
Think of Mary travelling on her donkey, amid the groups of panicked people, all forced by brutal authority to return and be counted by the Romans for taxation and army draft registration. Think of Mary on her donkey, having heard the mysterious news from the Angel Gabriel, having encountered God’s Holy Spirit, but still a migrant, and a criminal because pregnant before marriage. Think of Mary on her donkey, away from home, away from her mother… as she felt her very first contractions. First baby, first labor, first delivery—I wonder if she felt things were cozy, safe and easy?
Having just recently experienced childbirth as a companion to my wife, this nativity story has never been more appalling to me. I can at least say I understand the loneliness of Jesus’ birth. Of course, because of COVID, Maddy and I were alone together, you could say, in the delivery room: no balloons or parents or brothers or cousins. I was her “Joseph” I guess. But we at least had midwives and nurses! Mary’s midwife was a donkey, her nurse a cow.
We’re approaching the “true meaning” now I think. Imagine: Mary and Joseph, horrified to find their promised son and savior coming at a time when they are commanded to travel. Imagine: Mary’s shouts and groans of labor muffled by the walls of a stable.
Something that no one ever really accurately described to me, before entering into the birth process with my wife, was the element of danger. Labor is a dangerous threshold to cross! Nine months of hope and joy and worry suddenly become concentrated in those contracted, sleepless hours. It can all be lost, I realized. It can all be lost at any time. Children die, babies die, women die! Saviors of the world die.
Accompanying my wife through the agony of natural childbirth, it hit me how fragile she was, how much bewildering pain she was enduring. And loving her through that was almost more than I could bear. I had to look away at times. But God never looks away.
We’re getting even closer to the “true meaning” I think now. Back to the Holy Family: I don’t see how Mary would’ve been able to swaddle anything after giving birth… so, there is Joseph, I imagine, cutting the cord with a knife, wiping off the infant, wrapping Jesus in bands of cloth and laying him in the trough. And then that image becomes the heavenly symbol on the lips of angels to the shepherds of the field. “This will be the sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Does this sign matter because it’s pastoral and cute? Sadly, no.
And here, we really encounter the fullness of the “true meaning of Christmas.” When do you remember another man named Joseph, wrapping this same Jesus in cloth, and laying him somewhere?
In chapter 23 of Luke, we read this: “Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph… He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea …This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down [from the cross], wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb…”
We know of course, that this baby Jesus, this precious Son, did die. He was rejected and killed while his mother Mary watched. This doubled image is not an accident. This was the plan. God’s plan was not cozy, safe or easy. Because God knows that our lives are not cozy, safe or easy.
They never were, and they never will be. When a partner, or a parent, or a government, or a president promises you a life that is cozy, safe, or easy—you can know that they are well-meaning liars. Because as the namesake of my new baby, Simone Weil, writes: “Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.”
This trembling love is the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus doesn’t just come into our world, wearing its fragility like a mask. God becoming flesh shows us that Jesus’ fragility is actually a mark of eternity. Keeping “Christ” in Christmas is to declare: power is powerless, strength is not strong. What makes creation beautiful, what makes existence divine, what makes us God’s children is that we accept that we are weak and fragile.
God’s love comes to us an open and raw reminder of this. And we are asked to respond with the heart-heavy love of trembling new parents, to wrap this love in bands of cloth, to lay it down, to let go and watch.
At this point, I always hear a voice in my head that nags at me: Pastor Sullivan: “You are so depressing!” Pastor Sullivan: “What about heaven? What about the resurrection?” And to these questions I ask another question in response: Why do we honor Christmas and Good Friday? Why did God become flesh in Christ, and why does Christ become bread and wine for us? Because the most beautiful and true things are a mixture of sadness and joy. Pain is a mark of eternity.
But we cannot bear all this by ourselves: our power is not powerful in this, our strength not strong. Instead, we are baptized into a body that transforms doubt into trust, pain into healing, fear into love. If we are loyal to our Faith, to our Scriptures, then we confess: the road to Jesus’ resurrection must pass through mangers and tombs.
And this Pandemic has invited us to be truthful and loyal to this again. After decades of ease, these days have cut out the crap. If, today, you are pining for the “good old days,” for the traditions as they “ought” to be, when everyone believed the same, and faces had no masks and worship was inside these walls—I might ask you, gently, to examine what it is that really matters to you about Christmas. Because coziness, safety and ease are not part of the equation, they are add-ons, shielding us from the unbearable beauty of God’s heart.
When we think on the Christ Child tonight let’s embrace that God’s love is going to such lengths; God’s forgiveness is doing it all knowing it would fail; And God’s power is transforming us all to be like Mary, giving us the fragility, the smallness, the meekness needed to let God become real in the mangers and tombs of our lives.
And so I would like to leave you with this poem by Madeleine L’engle, (who you might know as the author of the kids book A Wrinkle in Time). In this poem of hers called “First Coming” she captures that “true meaning of Christmas” as good as anyone ever has I think:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!