Dec 2, 2007

Christmas Is Sacred Time


Christmas is a sacred time, but what does that mean? How are we to experience the sacred through this celebration?

When we think of the sacred, our imaginations run to haloed figures and light streaming through stained-glass windows. We locate the sacredness of the Christmas season in lighted Christmas trees, familiar carols, and the glorious sound of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Against these images and the meditative moments to which they call us, we're forced to think of cruising endless rows of cars at the mall in order to find a space to park. We think, and try not to think, of the mounting credit card bills. At Christmas dinner, our much-loved father may no longer be at the table—or the kids may be with their father and his new wife. We may find ourselves in an empty house, or one occupied by the disgruntled, and find ourselves praying for a way to make it through the ordeal. Where's the sacred in this?

When we say that something is sacred, we mean that it is set apart for a transcendent purpose. That's flashy language—the sort of thing Christmas lights and music symbolize. The way in which Jesus' birth was set apart, however, had more to do with the darker side of Christmas. In his orchestration of the scene, God employed cosmic irony: humankind's radical indifference to the advent of its Savior.

Mary and Joseph did not want to be in Bethlehem. They were forced to undertake the journey by governmental compulsion, in order to be counted in a census so that they could be properly taxed. Compulsion was followed by sheer indifference. The bucolic images of lowing cattle and kneeling sheep at Jesus' birth are mostly our way of prettifying an ugly reality. Jesus was born in a filthy shed. No one in Bethlehem cared enough about a pregnant woman going into labor to give her decent quarters.

God's imagination worked through these least appealing human circumstances to make Jesus' birth unforgettable. He set apart or made sacred his Son's birth by receiving, from the very beginning, the worst humanity had to offer. In a sense, Jesus' passion—his crucifixion and resurrection—is present in his birth; out of a scene that should horrify us—a mother giving birth in squalid and potentially deadly circumstances—comes new life. God set his Son's birth apart by making it utterly common.

Christmas shows us how we are to be set apart. The images of Christmas, the presents, trees, and carols, are signs of Jesus' divinity. But the greater wonder of Christmas consists in the historical reality of Jesus' birth—an event that ought to drive home his humanity and all that he gave up—in coming to dwell among us. Jesus came down to earth, emptying himself of the Godhead's glory, in order to set us apart in every down-to-earth thing we do. We find and celebrate the sacred character of the Christmas season best when we look again at our pell-mell daily activities, the brute circumstances of our holiday lives, and realize that these are mangers, the places God chooses to be born.

Many of us, through sheer busyness, have introduced more of the cross into Christmas than need be, of course. But in a certain sense, we are all bound to experience, in anything human, a great disparity between our transcendent longings and our earthly reality. Those who are going through a rough time at Christmas, as the result of illness or grief or through family animosity, can experience this disparity keenly. Alcohol abuse and suicide always rise during the holidays. Surely part of the secret of celebrating Christmas truly is to confront how, like Mary and Joseph, we too have been compelled to make unwanted journeys for others' alienating ends—and then, not surprisingly, have found ourselves in difficult circumstances. And to pray that God perform a miracle: to make all the wrong places of our lives exactly the right place for him to arrive. Then Christ breaks into Christmas 2007. For that's what Christmas first was . . . and always is.

From the Winter 2002 Connections.