Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
My wife and I initiated our girls into a WASP Christmas with an evening drive through various neighborhoods to look at decorations and lights. If Mary only knew that her figurine would one day be inflatable, kept from blowing away by string attached to balloons of Joseph, God, and the animals that came caroling.
All in all, the night left me singing along with Faith Hill. Where exactly are you, Christmas? Sure Santa grants wishes at the mall and the traffic turns us into Grinches: true signs of the holidays. But external merriment can only carry the soul so far.
When Shannon was pregnant I never could envision myself as a father. I had no awareness of it, no confidence in its actuality. I took care of her on bed rest for three months, listened to my twins’ beating hearts on the ultrasound, and felt their fists and legs punch and kick my hand. Yet I couldn’t believe. I had no grounded perception of the truth of fatherhood. What it would smell like. What it would sound like. What it would feel like. Though all the signs pointed me to reality, I didn’t believe in reality. And so I sit quietly in front of my Christmas tree, the room dark except for the tree’s illumination, and I recall another story I do not believe in.
It is a story where the experts of the ancient scriptures were the ones snugly sleeping the nights away as a star twinkled brighter than the others night after night. Foreshadowing of the type of folks that would have eyes to see and ears to hear and those who would not. Likely the light would have been out as the wise men passed by my house.
It’s a story of journeys, one long passage by two scared young parents-to-be, another longer course by three deceived gentiles bearing gifts, and yet an even further expedition by Emmanuel. It’s a story about you and not about you at all. All paths intersect in Bethlehem at some point; whether they continue into town toward the manger or instead follow the easier, longer road around town lies with you. As Buechner says, “at Christmastime, the one who confronts us with ourselves and with this truth is…God who is a child”. And sadly this confrontation fails to impress us, at least not in the cities and towns where it’s protocol to worship a baby every December. In the ancient Near East, it was customary to present gifts when approaching a superior. Imagine turning on your television one night to see breaking coverage of the presidential motorcade, armored plates and all, pulling into Licking, Missouri, population 2,754, formerly named after a buffalo salt lick. The line of police escorts give way to Cadillac One as the president steps out. The cameras cut from the parking lot to the hallway and then to the NICU. The president, fully aware that the nation of midnight TV viewers awaits his next move, approaches the lone incubator with the reverence you would only give the Commander in Chief. And then he falls to his knees to present the infant with the nation’s treasury. Such imagery is laughable, and yet it is our laughter that keeps us from understanding.
And no story is complete without a dragon. I’ve never seen a nativity scene include the invisible dragon of Revelation 12:4, primed to devour the foretold child before He could take his first breath. Scholars suggest the heart and actions of Herod took the form of such a dragon as he trembled upon hearing “It’s a Boy!”. His rage, induced by fear of losing his throne and power, made him the first anno domini enemy of God. Herod used the Romans to secure his power, killed family members and associates in attempt to keep that control, and finally committed infanticide in order to defy the prophetic challenger. Easy, we say, to call him an enemy of God. We know of no one driven by such selfishness, can’t even imagine it outside of perhaps terrorists in the Middle East. Surely no one that sits on your pew or lives in your neighborhood or stares back in your bathroom mirror. But when we look closely at Herod we see a familiar reflection. His eyes look eerily similar to the ones we possess that covet our friend’s wife. His hands take the same contours of ours that swipe the last cookie on the family plate. Surely our complacent indifference to the world’s least of these isn’t quite as bad as his binge of greed, right?
A friend texted me and a few others on Thanksgiving to let us know we were appreciated. Another fellow recipient replied all, “I could care less about you guys. Yet I love you more than I could ever imagine.” He wasn’t joking. The latter half I expected. The first part however revealed truth in the depths of you and me that rarely surfaces. Deep down, I really don’t care about you. Nor you for me. I’m going to get mine. I sail in Herod’s boat, a ship with “Enemies of God” painted boldly across the stern.
Yet God does not sink our boat. And by that grace I welcome the story we cannot tell enough, a story that believes in me even when I do not believe in it. A story of a scared teen, a good man, some livestock for dramatic effect, and a dragon, even. A story of the arrival of Peace that brought war and a war that will one day bring peace. Welcome, Christmas.