Christmas Without Ornaments

Scripture: Matthew 2

Over the years, Lisa and I have often vacationed in the Adirondack region of New York State and have climbed around in its spectacular mountains. On one visit, we passed by a little Adirondack town called North Pole. North Pole is one of those novelty villages that dot the American landscape and it won’t surprise you to learn that its central feature is a sprawling attraction called “Santa’s Workshop.”

We couldn’t tell whether Santa’s Workshop was accepting visitors—the parking lot harbored a lone station wagon—but it didn’t matter. It was a warm July day, the mountains beckoned,  and we were more enthused about encountering a brook trout or a blueberry patch than an elf or a reindeer. We slowed down slightly but we didn’t stop.

Christmas occasionally comes to us this way. We turn a corner and find ourselves hard upon it, unprepared, our head in other places. We do what we must to survive the holiday without alienating any family, losing any friends, or needing to declare bankruptcy. We get the last scrawny tree on the lot. We try to get to church and honor a tradition or two. And then we move on. We slow down slightly but we don’t stop.

But more often it seems to take forever for Christmas to arrive. Indeed, these days it usually seems as if we spend the entire final quarter of the year preparing for it. 

It’s become a cliché to remark on the fact that popular culture has commercialized the holiday and I don’t intend to re-tread that well-worn path here. But it is worth noting that the same economic forces that drive the commercialization of Christmas also push the season of its celebration earlier and earlier.

The assault begins months ahead of time, not in the “bleak midwinter” but while we’re still raking up leaves. You know how it goes: The preseason advertisements and promotions descend upon us like a cloud of arrows. An army of self-appointed authorities rushes forward to counsel us on how to achieve the perfect holiday and stop sending relatives home hungry and angry. Radio channels convert to programs made up entirely of Christmas music, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I like Christmas as much as the next guy, but that’s an awful lot of snowmen, sleigh bells, and singing chipmunks. 

Some churches do what they can to compensate for this onslaught and to keep the faithful focused on the religious significance of the holiday. But this exercise, too, involves a great deal of preparing for Christmas. There are decorating events and children’s pageants and special concerts and coordinated efforts to buy gifts for those less fortunate and so on and so on. We even make a season of the preparatory stage through the celebration of Advent. 

All this secular and sacred preparing means that we no longer celebrate Christmas. We marinate in it. We sit in a simmering pot of Christmas cheer for months and months. And, as a result, by time the holiday arrives we are thoroughly saturated with messages of sweetness and cuteness, little drummer boys and silent nights, joy to the world and sleeping in heavenly peace. It is in this state of mind that we typically encounter the story of the nativity.

But, of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual story. The actual story is one that we need to meet fresh. On its own terms. Free of distractions. And without ornaments. 

And what a story it is. It is set in Judea, which we might think of as occupied territory under Roman control. In 40 B.C., the Roman Senate appointed Herod the Great as King of Judea. The Senate chose Herod because of his demonstrated ability in military and political confrontations. Permit me to offer a masterpiece of understatement: Herod was not a nice man.

A remarkable fact tells us a great deal about Herod and about Rome’s confidence in him. At the time of his appointment, the throne of Judea was occupied—and not just by some weak-kneed slouch. It was held by Antigonous II, installed there by the Parthians, an Iranian people who had successfully stopped Roman expansion in the past. 

In other words, in order to accept his assignment, Herod had to march into Jerusalem, defeat the Parthian forces, and unseat and execute Antigonous. So, he did. And then he went on to prove himself as ruthless in guarding the throne as he had been in acquiring it.

We therefore have to wince when we read the part about the wise men going to Herodto ask about the location of the promising new infant king. In fact, the whole idea of it should make us wince three times. First, it was the wrong question—a question threatening the existing order. Second, it was delivered to the wrong man—a paranoid king with the power of the Roman Empire behind him. And, third, it was asked by the wrong people—men who came from the East, maybe even from the Parthian Empire. 

Matthew tells us that this encounter frightened Herod, and then adds that it frightened all Jerusalem along with him. We can understand why. A terrified despot is a terrifying prospect.

No stranger to war, Herod knew precisely how to begin—by gathering information about the enemy. He called together the chief priests and scribes and demanded to know where the child would be born. He summoned the wise men and cross-examined them about the exact time the star had appeared. Then he tried to make those men into his unwitting accomplices in murder. That is how Herod the Great prepared for Christmas. 

Think of it. A ruthless tyrant mobilized the most powerful military and political force on the planet to find and kill an obscure Jewish infant. Herod would stop at nothing to accomplish his mission—even if it meant treating countless other children as collateral damage. And, tragically, it did.

When he discovered that the wise men had betrayed him, Herod put an unspeakable “final solution” to his problem in motion. Imagine the shock, the anguish, the inconsolable grief wrought by the slaughter. Imagine a land littered with the corpses of infants and toddlers. Imagine the horror of it all—if you can bring yourself to do it. It is a gruesome vision perpetrated by the worst impulses of humankind: greed, wrath, hatred, the lust for power, the willingness to sacrifice the innocent.

Well, if hell mobilized, then so did heaven. A dream prevented the wise men from returning to Herod and disclosing the whereabouts of the child. And an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take his family and to run for their lives.

At Christmastime we often read this angel’s words with a tone reminiscent of a warm and fuzzy suggestion from a concerned uncle. I remember a film version of the nativity where the angel delivers these lines like a friendly ghost in no particular hurry. “Jooooo-seph. Awaaaaake. Taaaaake the chiiiiild. Gooooo to Eeeeegypt.” Sorry, but I don’t think so.

Amiable, gentle renditions like this miss the unmistakable urgency of the message. That urgency is hard to overlook if we remember what Herod was doing and if we remember that Joseph was sound asleep when these words descended upon him. 

I think it must have gone more like this: “GET UP! GET UP! Herod is looking for Jesus in order to KILL HIM! Take the child and his mother and FLEE to Egypt! GO! GET OUT! STAY THERE! AND STAY THERE UNTIL I TELL YOU IT’S SAFE! And it won’t be safe until Herod is DEAD!” I almost imagine the angel with hands on hips, hollering like some kind of divinely inspired drill sergeant.

The scripture tells us that these words came to Joseph not as reassuring guidance but as a startling revelation, although it tells us indirectly. It does so by beginning the next verse with this pointed observation: “Joseph got up.”  

Those mobilized angels came to Joseph again. They guided him to Israel. They ushered him to Nazareth. A prophecy was fulfilled. A savior was saved.

The story of how this happened is hard and frightening. It’s not comfortable bedtime reading. Good things happen to bad people: Herod gains a throne and holds it until his death. Bad things happen to good people: Innocent children are murdered; families are devastated; and one very special family is hounded from one desperate place to another. This Christmas—the Christmas without ornaments—is not for the faint of heart. 

The way in which we get Christmas all wrong reminds me of a story about my mother. By time my mother reached her eighties she had endured more than her fair share of suffering. One day, to brighten her spirits, she went to a hair salon at a fancy department store as a minor indulgence. As she was leaving the store, feeling very stylish, a young woman behind the cosmetics counter called out to her: “Well, don’t you look cute!”

My mother stopped in her tracks, turned, and marched over. “Young lady,” she responded. “I am more than eighty years old. I have lived through multiple wars, one of which killed my first husband. I have buried three men I have loved.  I have survived financial ruin, a heart condition, skin cancer, breast cancer, the loss of a kidney, and blindness in one eye. I am many things. But I am not cute.”

Christmas is many things. But it is not cute. Taking a closer look at the story we find in the second chapter of Matthew may help us remember what Christmas is, and what it isn’t.

It is the time when we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into our world—ourworld. Not a world filled with sweetness and light and talking snowmen and red-nosed reindeer, but the real world. A world filled with pain and suffering, greed and indifference, hatred and prejudice, war and violence, despair and death, horror and terror; a world that needs saving; a world that can be saved—through the grace and power of Love itself. That is, indeed, the only thing that has any chance of saving it at all. 

That is what Christmas is. It is Good News, the Ultimate Good News, the News of Hope, the Seriously Best News Ever. It is, as the angel says to the shepherds, “good news of great joy.” It is sacred and saving news brought to a sad and sinking world.

It is, even in the presence of overwhelming darkness, the irresistible light.

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