The good news of Christmas

December 19th, 2016

Beyond the coconut bon-bon

I’ll admit it. When I saw the coconut bon-bon in the cellophane bag, I felt a flutter in my heart. My wife and I had just enjoyed a Christmas program at the little frame church in the woods down the road from our home on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The angels wore tinsel halos and shuffled uncertainly beneath their cardboard wings, the shepherds knelt awkwardly in their bathrobes with their wooden crooks, and the choir sang “Do You Hear What I Hear?” If you have expectations for what a Christmas program looks like, they hit every note — right down to the traditional handing out of candy at the end of the night.

As a district superintendent in The United Methodist Church, I know the dangers of nostalgia. Whenever we start looking back on a golden period of the church, we run the risk of not being able to see the new thing that God is doing. I had been resisting the pull pretty well until I saw that bon-bon, and suddenly my mind went racing back to the warm, acrid smell of the oil stove in my grandmother’s living room, next to which was a dish that at Christmas time contained — you guessed it — coconut bon-bons.

So on Christmas, I need some help to see the Incarnation as God’s new thing. There’s comfort in looking back, particularly when the realities of the present seem uncertain or dark. But is Christmas just a nostalgic trip back to childhood, or is it about seeing the world as it really is: God-infused and ever capable of wonder and transformation? Don’t we need new eyes in our tired old world, and real good news instead of the fake news we decry?

A distressing first Christmas

The images of the first Christmas that we find comforting would have been distressing to many people in Roman-occupied Palestine. There were the circumstances of the pregnancy, which were so inexplicable and upsetting that Joseph gave thought to quietly letting Mary go before their marriage (Matthew 1:19). Mary herself recognized how God’s action in the birth would upend the expectations of the world, and she sang of how God “pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). King Herod, as Matthew depicts him, sits uneasily on his throne as magi come looking for another king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-3), and then he conspires to kill all the children of Bethlehem when the magi don’t deliver an address for the newborn (2:16-18). All is calm and all is bright in our carols, but the Nativity scene contained a lot of drama.

Jesus, in the way he entered the world, undercut a lot of assumptions about the Messiah. As his life and ministry revealed, it was difficult for those around him to see him as the hope for Israel. Those hopes were shaped by traditional understandings of how power would be wielded and by a certain kind of wistfulness for former days when Israel was a strong and independent nation with a legendary ruler. Jesus may have come in the line of King David, but his message was all about the new thing God was doing.

The world in a bowl of soup

You might say that Christmas is a test for our eyes. What do we see in the story of the Incarnation? Is it only an affirmation of what we’ve always believed, or does it still have the capacity to surprise us?

In 1976, author Annie Dillard wrote “A Christmas Story” for Harper’s Magazine in which she imagined a scene at a great banquet. A table “as long as a river” stretched down the middle of a great hall at which many guests were gathered. They all got the same dish: a soup “made of so many ingredients it seemed to contain all other dishes.”

The host of the feast watched from a balcony and was disturbed that no one was really seeing the excellence of the soup. He pulled back a curtain and let his gaze fall on a single old man who instantly felt “an overwhelming sense of power.” As he looked into his bowl, he saw all the riches that led to this soup: the carrots growing in the field, the workers harvesting and scrubbing the produce, the fish in the ocean and the birds in the air.

The host let the curtain fall shut, and the man blinked. “I see now . . . that this is truly an excellent soup, praise God,” he said. Then he joined the dancers at the great feast.

Far be it from me to reduce a rich story to a single point, but in Dillard’s vision I see the wonder of the Incarnation revealing God’s presence in the world in startling new ways. Christmas can open our eyes to the richness already present and to God’s work already begun. It can also invite us to participate in what God is doing in the world — to join the dance.

Real good news

In the days following the recent presidential election, there was a lot of discussion of “fake news” — online articles that purport to be truthful but bear little relation to reality. Such articles can be found at both ends of the political spectrum, and they serve not to inform but to reinforce convictions we hold anyway. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Kenan Malik sought to explain the popularity of these articles. He says, “Politics has always relied on more than just facts about the world. It rests also [upon] an ideological framework through which to interpret facts.”

In contrast, Christians rely on a deeper framework of “good news” to interpret the facts of the world. God’s entry into the world in Jesus is an invitation to see a more profound story at work in history. In God’s story, marginal places can be the birthplace of saviors, and the hopes of downtrodden peoples can be restored through the birth of a child. This news — real good news — challenges all the other frames that would claim to be truth for us. They also invite us to see the world through the lens of the hope that’s within us because of our faith.

The fire in the well

Deep in the instructions given to Israel’s priests is a command to keep a continuous fire burning on the altar of God’s sanctuary (Leviticus 6:12-13). In the Apocrypha, the story is told of how the fire was preserved at the time of the Babylonian exile. Second Maccabees 1:19–2:1 records that as the people were preparing for deportation, the prophet Jeremiah ordered them to take some of the fire with them while the priests hid the remaining fire in a dry well.

When the Temple was rebuilt after long years of exile, Nehemiah sent some of the priests’ descendants back to the well. They didn’t find the fire, but they did discover a mysterious thick liquid. When they poured out the liquid on the wood for the sacrifice, it blazed up into a great fire. Later, they poured it on some large stones, and they, too, burst into flame.

Somewhere beneath the nostalgia of Christmas is a concentrated hope for a new day. We long to see that the tired old world has the capacity to shine once again with restored brilliance and to reveal itself as God-filled. Like the fire hidden in the ruins of the old Temple, there’s the potential for a great blaze. With the right eyes, we can see that new thing even in the old stories and traditions. And God will burst in again.

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