The Violence of Christmas
Do yourself a favor before Christmas. Read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth. Then read Genesis 1-3. Then read Revelation 12. Then throw in Romans 16:20 for good measure.
That's the whole Christmas story.
It's not simply the poetic and sweet story of a child's birth, welcomed by stars and angels. It's a violent war story. A cosmic war story. A conflict between fundamental forces of good and evil. As Mary labored in a place far from home, heaven and hell thundered and took up arms.
I think of The Fifth Element's Leeloo, who descends to Earth at the beginning of the movie, pursued by evil forces bent on the planet's destruction. She is perfect and innocent, but she's also here to fight. To spend her life redeeming a planet. Read those passages and watch the film again; it's a Christmas story.
I think of Alan Furst's spy novels, where whispers behind enemy lines invoke fury and danger. Where the small, the unsuspected, the few pave the way for the forces of good to erode and ultimately invade a land held captive by forces of evil.
And of course, I think of Die Hard, which we already knew was a Christmas movie, but think a layer deeper: a hero travels to a far-off land (McClane is a New York cop in Los Angeles) to reconcile with his estranged bride (she's changed her name) and has to rescue her from evil powers that hold her captive. Yippee-ki-yay.
Doomed by a Baby
In Genesis, a serpent slithers into a perfect world and begins lying, eroding its foundations. In Revelation, this evil one has grown into a furious dragon: his power and dominion are far more menacing. He fumes and rages and casts down stars from the sky. But he's still doomed.
And the first attack against him isn't marked by the shout of warriors, the flash of swords, or the thunder of cannons. It's marked by the cry of a baby.
The world didn't welcome him. We only offered his laboring mother a reeking stable to protect her from the weather. The Christ child was born and laid in a manger, a place where animals eat. Later, while breathing his last upon a cross, he'd quote from a psalm that describes his death like this:
Like lions they open their jaws against me,
roaring and tearing into their prey . . .
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and feet.
The baby took his first nap in a feeding trough, and 33 years later, his death would be likened to being torn apart by wild animals. He would also tell his followers to feast on his body and blood, a way of symbolizing and experiencing union with him; to taste and see that he's good, that he's victorious over Satan, sin, and death. Think about that symbolism: only by tearing him apart and devouring him do we participate in his redemption.
There should be no question that Christmas is the greatest cause for joy that the world has known. Imagine if Christ hadn't come. Imagine a life where there was no eternal hope, where we were left to try to redeem ourselves.
Stop and Think
Christmas is also a time for us to stop and think. Remember the whole story of Christmas, not just the easily marketed warm-and-fuzzy side. Remember that all of it—Jesus' condescension as a baby, his birth in a filthy stable, his sleep in a manger—reminds us of the muck he found us in. The nativity, so often depicted as cute and kitsch, is actually a painful depiction of our sin and fallenness. As Jerome once put it, Jesus was born in a dungheap because that's where he knew he'd find us.
Remember, too, that the Christ-child's birth caused hell to erupt with fury. Remember that their resistance was futile.
And remember, most of all, that the violence and humiliation of Christmas happened because God loved us enough to suffer all of it on our behalf and by our side. In Christ, we never have to be alone in our sorrows, pain, and humiliation again. The one who made the world entered it as a child and experienced all of its hardships and injustices so that by God's grace, he could be our comforter in the years to come.
Which is why at advent, we proclaim:
"Comfort, comfort my people,"
says your God.
"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the LORD has punished her twice over
for all her sins."
Listen! It's the voice of someone shouting,
"Clear the way through the wilderness
for the LORD!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The LORD has spoken!"