Because God is lavish with grace, I have been a participant and observer of the celebration we call Christmas for generations. My memory stash is full.
I recall one day in the distant past driving down the streets of Palo Alto, California, with my then 5-year old. Seeing the paper mache bells which decorated the city streets, she asked, "Mommy, why don't the bells ring?" Good question, Laurie. The theme of Christmas is genuine, jubilant, holy Joy! Not virtual reality, sham joy, but the Joy of heaven invading earth. God making His home with His people. Hear it again for the first time:
"And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them,'Do not be afraid for behold I bring you good news of a Great Joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:9-13
The Joy of which the angel speaks is not a contrived, superficial
joy, but heart response to the central theme of Christmas: Emmanuel
- God with us! All around are masked santas, plastic bells and
baubles, toys and tinsels - a sad parody on the true Joy which
God intends for us. Temporary substitutes for the real thing.
It is well symbolized by bells that do not and cannot ring, and
by lifeless trees cut from their source of nurture and survival
in order to capture brief moments of ephemeral pleasure.
Bumper stickers have many stories to tell. Among my favorites is one that appeared for many months on a car that was parked in front of a church not far from my home in Grants Pass. It read
GOD IS COMING! LOOK BUSY!
Suppose we had been the ones notified of God's first visible
Advent into our planet. Let's consider for a moment how we might
plan. How would we go about it? Well, first of all we would plan
for food--excessive/lavish/gourmet. There would be luxury hotels,
protocol, credits. We would notify the press, official dignitaries,
C Span CBS, ABC PBS Fox News and CNN - carefully, of course, since
God might present a serious ego-threat! Surely we will want the
most prestigious evangelical leaders, the top Christian rock band.
(We might stop to worry a bit about the theological implications
of eastern magi.)
God has come! God is with us! And how do we now celebrate Christmas? I am reminded of another bumper sticker: BORN TO SHOP! Born to-- frenzy, frustration, exhaustion? Born to financial indiscretion, credit card blues, and shall we mention greed? Born to the aftermath of heaps of unwanted, unneeded rubbish, to be disposed of in garage sales? The image of a young woman who found her way to the top of the charts, now facing prison time for stealing clothing from a department store, comes to mind.
It can all add up to an annual flurry of shallow, superficial kindness, outdoing, upstaging, legalistic gift-exchanges, sentimental, cosmetic responses, petty shows of piety--nods to God, and bells that repeal the awe and adoration--the real Joy of Advent celebration.
C.S.Lewis said that God allows us many pleasant inns, but we must not consider them our final destiny. God allows for visions of sugar plums to dance through our heads, but He would not want us to imagine we were born simply for those transient moments of contrived pleasure. He intends something far more satisfying, enriching and fulfilling.
So where are our hearts focused? In the muddle of all of this, have we forgotten--do we remember--do we wonder with awed and profound reverence at the astounding mystery and marvel of God in a human baby, the most helpless of all birthed progeny?
Does it register with us women especially that God who flung
the universes into space is birthed by a woman, a virgin, without
a male sperm? What incredible dignity was conferred upon womanhood
in that thunderbolt of God's condescension! Does it bend our knees
in stunned amazement that God himself would be willingly subject
to the trauma of birth, born to a humble peasant woman (how unglamorous--not
even a coordinated wardrobe!)
Do we carry in the center of our being the wonder of angelic hosts proclaiming this stupendous God-event to unsuspecting, startled, unwashed shepherds tending their flocks by night. Yes, to these comes the message of the unfathomable marvel of Mary's Lamb, lying in a cattle stall.
Someone has suggested we think of the Christmas saga as a musical score. The lower clef is concrete earthly events: a stable, a birth trauma, a newborn baby, a humble peasant woman, a village carpenter, shepherds tending sheep, some obscure eastern magi. Then in the upper clef the heavens are opened, angelic messengers appear, a guiding star in the heavens.
Hear it again, for the first time!
Hear the most magnificent symphony ever composed telling the greatest news--tidings of a Great Joy! It is the world's greatest love song, the story of our Lover-Redeemer. In the manger we find the evidence that God so loved the world - the world, the real world, His enemy - that He gave His only Son in inconceivable humility, a baby in a cattle stall. This is where the celebration of the reality - the Great Joy - of Christmas begins.
The Lord of glory invaded our tiny dark planet as a helpless, dependent infant--in the middle of life as it really is.
He meets us where we really live, as we really are:
hostile/bitter/rebellious/inadequate for life,
He meets us in our stables as we come to Him in the helpless
dependency of a newborn child. Mary had a baby. Yes, Mary had
a lamb in that stable: God's Lamb, the Son of God, who laid down
His life a sweet-smelling savor to God the Father.
The sacrifice of His perfect life satisfied the justice of a holy God, and set the Father free to lavish His love and grace on you and me. This is the world's Redeemer for whom the bells should toll! Mary, the humble unadorned peasant girl, received the Life of Jesus. Yes indeed-- Mary was a blest virgin. But Mary knew the story was infinitely greater than only her personal blessing. Hear her magnificent doxology:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden, for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed for he who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever."
Because the Savior of the world was born, gave His life as
the price of our salvation, and rose victorious over death and
the grave, God offers His amazing grace-gift to all who will receive.
But there is more for us who are women!
Mary's story is for us--up close and personal! This very young peasant girl's prestige factor was close to zero. Even the rabbis in a three-fold thanksgiving prayer praised God that he had not created him a woman. But God assigned to Mary an unequaled place of dignity and value. The amazing grace of God redeemed the tragedy of Eve's betrayal, and placed the Divine seal of approval on woman, for all of time.
The joy and celebration of woman's dignity is not found in power-seeking, in dominance and control of others. Are you learning to celebrate your high calling as one in whom the Lord Jesus lives in all of His resurrection power? Is God's Holy Spirit making Jesus Christ incarnate through you, in the beauty and dignity of serving, nurturing and loving?
I suggest the way we celebrate Christmas is reflective of the way we live our day-to-day lives. It is well for us to ask ourselves whether we acknowledge in all the events of our daily lives that God with us. We may ask whether our focus is actually on acknowledging with worship and gratitude His rich gifts to us, and then offering those gifts as a sacrifice of praise. Worship and gratitude in celebration of God-with-us produce Joy in giving and serving in His name and for His sake.
Early Christians experienced this Joy: "Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing Joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability." And the secret to this voluntary and sacrificial giving: "..they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will."
We have in the Mary story a beautiful paradigm of a life surrendered to receiving the indwelling Presence of Christ for a purpose beyond herself, for the blessing of many generations. The result for her and for us in whom Christ dwells by faith is that transcendent Joy for which we were made.
May our hearts be tuned to the Symphony of Joy which is Christ-in-you, the hope of glory! Then it will be always Christmas and never winter.
From an address to the women's fellowship of Applegate Community Church, Applegate Community Church --18960 N. Applegate, Applegate, Ore. Ph. 846-6100 December 2002.
The Ray Stedman Library