Maybe we expect too much from Christmas. The retailers certainly push it on us, with decorations out as soon as Halloween is over, and sales now starting on Thanksgiving Day instead of the day after. Some radio stations start playing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving. Many play them all through December. And they all tell us that Christmas is "merry and bright," it is "the best time of the year," ‘Tis the season to be jolly."
But what if it isn’t so merry and bright for some folks? What about those who are struggling with cancer treatments, or are grieving someone who has died? What about those who are all alone, or even homeless, or far away serving in the military? Maybe even if everything else is okay, when the family comes together, Uncle Fred and Aunt Gertrude fight all the time and make things miserable for everyone else, or Mom gets sick and doesn’t feel well enough to get up to open presents on Christmas morning? What is Christmas like for those who are still struggling to get over mass shootings that affected their families and friends, or the Boston Marathon bombing? Is it all "merry and bright?"
Maybe we expect too much from the Christmas story too. The nativity scene version of the story presents a very pretty picture of a baby laid in a manger, and Mary and Joseph serenely watching. The animals are usually laying quietly around. A star shines over the manger scene, and the shepherds stand nearby with a few cute lambs. The wise men are on the other side, eloquently dressed, with their camels decorated, and elaborate presents for the baby. It is a sweet scene, and at a glance it seems so serene and happy.
But there is turmoil even in the biblical accounts from Luke and Matthew.
Joseph was engaged to a young woman who was found to be with child, and he knew it was not his own. He made plans to quietly divorce her, which would have left her all on her own. A young unwed mother would have no place in the society of the times. But an angel intervened and told Joseph that the child was the Son of God. Just before the baby was to be born, Joseph had to report back to his hometown because of a required census. Bethlehem was so crowded and busy and noisy, that the only place they could find to have the baby was in the shed where the animals were kept. And they laid the newborn in the manger from which the animals drank their water. It was hardly a prestigious, happy beginning.
Then wise men from the east determined that there was a special child born, and went to King Herod to ask where the baby might be, that they might honor him. King Herod did not like the thought of anyone other than himself being honored in his country, so he plotted to get rid of the child, in whatever way he could. First he coyly asked the wise men to return to him to tell him where the child was, claiming that he too wanted to honor him. But the wise men were indeed wise, and they listened to God in a dream telling them to go home a different way, and to not talk to Herod again. So Herod, in his insane raging, decided to slay all the male babies 2 years and younger, in order to make sure that this one special baby was no threat. Joseph had another dream that told him to get out of Herod’s way, and he packed his family up again and fled to Egypt. So Jesus was born into danger from the beginning, before he was even able to comprehend it.
All of these events were, according to the gospel, to show that Jesus fulfills the beliefs and hopes of the Old Testament: Isaiah 7:14 says, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel." Hosea 11:1 says "and out of Egypt I called my son." Herod’s plot to kill all the male babies reminds us of Pharoah hunting down the Israelite baby boys in Exodus. And just after the quote about Rachel weeping for her children during the exile, in Jeremiah, we hear: "Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord. They shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country." (Jer. 31:16-17).
If we look at the Christmas story as a whole, we might just find that it reflects life perhaps better than the peaceful manger scene. There’s nothing wrong with the manger scene, mind you. (I love manger scenes, I collect them.) But sometimes we need to remember the story behind it, because life is messy, and not always as "merry and bright" as we would like it, or expect it to be.
When things go wrong, a lot of people ask why God doesn’t just step in and stop the suffering. Some even lose their faith in God when something bad happens in their life. But maybe that is because they are expecting Santa more than Jesus. Jesus certainly experienced suffering in his own life, and he was surrounded by people who were suffering, many of them begging him for healing. If we expect the Christmas story, or even the Easter story, to take away all the suffering in life, we may be reading the Bible the wrong way. Life is full of suffering, even evil. We know this as soon as we turn on the evening news. We cannot avoid suffering in life. It is how we respond to the suffering that defines us as followers of Christ. For Christ knows suffering. Christ is right in the middle of evil and suffering from the beginning of his earthly life. When he was a baby, his father fled the evil for a while. Yet we see from the gospels that Jesus the adult walked right into the middle of the evil and suffering and faced it head on. Christ accepted the evil and suffering that led to his death on the cross, so that he could show us how very much God loves us.
So, sure, God does not overcome evil with a magic fist from the sky that pounds the bad guys. God confronts evil face to face with love. Remember the quote from Mr. Rogers that circulated last year after the horrors of Sandy Hook. Mr. Rogers (a good Presbyterian pastor, BTW) said, as only he could, talking to the children yet also to all of us: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’" If we follow Jesus, we will be the ones helping whenever evil or suffering strike. We do not need to meet evil with evil, or even with fear, we can greet it with love.
Two children’s books illustrate this truth of meeting evil with love so well.
The first was written by David LaMotte, whom many of our young people know from Montreat. He is a Christian singer and song writer. More recently, he has also been working towards world peace. He wrote a book about an incident in Knoxville, TN in 2009, when the KKK, a racist supremist group, held a rally in the city. Protestors came, but not the usual protestors. These protestors were dressed in colorful clown costumes, and they were smiling. The KKK were confused. They raised their fists and shouted, "White power!" The clowns all looked at one another, wondering what they were saying, until one said, "I’ve got it! White flour!" And they all threw out puffs of white flour, all over themselves, all over the street, and danced in glee. The KKK got angry, and shouted louder, "White power!" The clown protestors stopped and thought again, and one said, "I’ve got it! White flowers!" And they threw out lovely white flowers. The KKK got angrier, and the police stepped in closer. In response to "White power" one more time, the clowns shouted, "Wife Power!" and happily celebrated all the women in the group. The KKK quit their march and left, in frustration, but without any violent confrontations.
The other story is based on a legend about Denmark’s reaction to the takeover of their country by Nazi forces in 1939. The Danes were a united country, and it did not matter whether one was Christian or Jewish or red or black or white. They were all Danes. This was largely due to the attitude of their king, Christian by name. Every day King Christian rode through the streets of Copenhagen, with no escort, because he was so beloved that no one would think of harming him. Everyone greeted him, and he greeted everyone cheerfully. When the Nazis came in, they took over and put a Nazi flag on the palace. King Christian had a soldier take it down. A Nazi officer went to the king and asked who took down the flag. "One of my soldiers," said the king. "The flag will go back up," said the officer, "and if a soldier comes to take it down, he will be shot." "The flag will come down," said the king, "and I will be that soldier." The flag did not go back up on the palace, and this was a small moral victory for Denmark. Soon, there was an order that all the Jewish citizens of Denmark would have to wear a yellow star. Danes knew that Jews identified in other countries soon disappeared, and were never heard from again. They were frightened. The king pondered what to do, and sent for his tailor. The tailor sewed a yellow star on the king’s uniform, and the next day, when King Christian rode through the streets of Copenhagen on his horse, the citizens saw and knew what they had to do. They all put on yellow stars.
Though this legend cannot be proven, it prevails. And it is a fact that Denmark saved more of its Jewish citizens than any other Nazi-occupied country. Again, the story of the yellow star shows that love can conquer evil.
Tom Long’s commentary on the Matthew passage reminds us that the evil that happens in life is not of God’s doing. He says:
"The message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction woven into the fabric of history, and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save." (Long, p. 22).
When evil comes into our lives (and it will), we need the companionship of a faith community like this one to pray with and for us, to study and interpret the words of Scripture along with us, and to remind us that God does not flee from evil, but rather confronts evil with a love that is deeper than life itself. Where suffering is, Christ is there also. And perhaps that is just where we should be too, in the name of the one who came to be one with us as a little baby, who entered right into life with us, as messy as it is, and who brought us love in its highest and deepest form.
In this Christmastide and always, may we find and feel Immanuel, "God with us," right in the thick of life, each and every day, each and every hour and minute.
Deedy, Carman Agra, The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark (Peachtree Publishers, GA, 2000)
LaMotte, David, White Flour (Lower Dryad Music, Canada, 2007)
Long, Thomas, Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997)