I love the opening scene of the movie White Christmas. Once the credits roll, the first shot is of an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-ian snowy landscape. Could be Vermont. Could be Ohio. The title card tells us it’s Christmas Eve, 1944. As the camera pulls back, we find we’re not in middle America. We’re in the bombed out ruins of a European city as Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing and dance for the American troops. When Bing then sings the iconic title song, a song evoking all the nostalgia of that snowy American backdrop, it speaks powerfully to what God’s mission in the world has to do with Christmas.
At Christmas, though we are surrounded by the wreckage of Adam’s world, we sing the songs that remind us of home, the songs that make us nostalgic for Eden. Christmas is much more than a marshmallow world and sleigh rides, extravagant light displays and ugly sweaters. It’s more than family nostalgia and sentimentality. Christmas is God’s most unexpected turn in the story of everything being put back in its right place.
Christmas is for protest against the darkness and evil at work in the world and in our neighborhoods. Christmas is for resistance. Christmas is for immersing ourselves in the awesome mystery of God’s love for the world.
Christmas is subversive. It’s the greatest plot twist in the greatest story ever told. That God would enter the story as a newborn baby is the plot point that sweeps the rug out from under us. Christmas is shock and surprise. J.R.R. Tolkien invented the word “eucatastrophe” to describe the Incarnation. It’s everything the opposite of a catastrophe. It’s a “good catastrophe.” And this is good news. This is gospel.
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth”
To pay close attention to the birth narratives of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we don’t find scenes of a silent night, holy night. There is danger. There is conflict. There is dramatic tension. There is murder. There is escape.
Heavenly messengers appear to a priest, a peasant girl, her fiancé, and finally a whole group of blue-collar shepherds in he middle of the night. A powerful king orders the murder of innocent children. Foreign kings come pledging their allegiance to the child of a carpenter.
But the story is still bigger than that. This is a radical turning point in the cosmic battle between good and evil. This is the story about a God who makes a good and beautiful world. But humanity, his regents on earth, have fouled and corrupted the world. To understand the significance of Jesus, we need to be clear about the problem in the world. We need to know the story, it’s problem and solution.
“He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found”
Commonly, we boil the story down to this: Humanity is a hopeless bunch of sinners. But lucky for us, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Now, if we acknowledge that and be nice people, we can go to heaven when we die.
Christmas, according to this story, means that God gives the baby Jesus to humanity to save us from our sins. But there’s another way of telling the story. There’s a better way.
God made the world. But human beings allowed sin and death to enter it, wreaking havoc and poisoning God’s good creation. We need to include the stories of Simeon and Anna in our Christmas Scripture readings. We are told that Simeon “was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.” Anna “talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.”
These stories bookend with the unnamed disciples walking to Emmaus who encounter the risen, but incognito, Jesus. “We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel,” they tell him. We can feel their crushed dreams.
In our own world today, we see tyrants and bullies, poverty and suffering, injustice and war. Like Simeon and Anna and these two unnamed disciples, we yearn for rescue. Our neighborhoods are desperate for rescue. Every broken place, every wounded place, every grievance, every system of oppression, every inhuman ideology—Christmas means God is doing something about all of it.
“Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel”
The whole story, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story about God. God is the central character. Not me. Not you. It’s not about how we get to heaven. The story is about how God gets all of his kids back, how God finds his home among human beings again. God initiates. God seeks us out. God pursues us. God is actively doing something about the problems in the world.
A most revealing statement about God’s character and what he wants comes in his first encounter with Moses: ““I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.” This is not only the arc of the plot through the book of Exodus. It’s also the plot of the Christmas story. God see. God hears. God knows. And God comes down.
At the end of Exodus, God takes up residence in the tabernacle, living among his people. Later in Israel’s story, God lives in the temple in Jerusalem. During the Babylonian exile, God promises Ezekiel among the refugees, “I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
When John begins his gospel, he writes “So the Word became human and made his home among us.” The Greek word for “made his home” is the same word used in the Exodus story for the tabernacle. Matthew includes a quote from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus will be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Not them. Us. It’s personal.
And this is the profound mystery, that God cannot imagine being God without us. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius says, “He became Himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through he works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.” God enters the human story so that human beings can enter God’s story.
“O come let us adore him”
Christmas is about Jesus. It draws us deeper into the mystery of Jesus, the God who became a human being. Christmas draws us to the mind-bending reality of the Incarnation. In the son of Mary is a person fully divine and fully human. Jesus is not like one of the Greek or Roman deities, masquerading as a human on earth. Nor is Jesus simply a really good person whose ethics we should model for ourselves. Jesus is Yahweh of the Old Testament with skin and bone, atoms and molecules, organs and limbs.
On Christmas Eve, I entered a local sanctuary with my family for a communion service. All was dark. A towering figure of Jesus enthroned shone through stained like a window into heaven. It reminded me of the snowy backdrop that opens White Christmas. Christmas reminds us of home, of all that we fight and struggle for. Christmas anchors us in reality despite all images of ruin and decay around us.
In another pop culture staple of the season, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we find another profound image. The turning point of the story—the Grinch’s conversion—comes when the citizens of Whoville gather together, despite having so much stolen from them, and they sing. We live in a world where so much has been stolen from us, killed, and destroyed. But still we gather and we sing, because we know that God is up to something big. Amid the darkness, we know Christmas signals to us the renewal of all creation.
The story of Christmas, the story of the Incarnation, is the beginning of the end of Adam’s world. It’s the invasion of holy God into the fallen world. Christmas matters for the mission of God because it displays the extraordinary lengths God is going to bring us all home.
So grab some popcorn and settle in to see what happens next.
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