I live in Oregon, where snow is a rare event; rarer still are men made of snow. So folks make do by adorning their lawns with monstrous inflatable snow creatures, cartoonish to a grotesque degree, that never seem to be adequately filled with air, and so bob and bounce listlessly, flagging to passersby with drooping limbs and leering grins.
One such creature has lived near me since the first of December, just three houses down, and I am forced to encounter him each time I trek to my local parish. He is, for some inexplicable reason, perpetually cooking an inflatable sausage on an inflatable grill, and he wears a brightly colored bib that reads “Hot Stuff.” Every time I see him, I am filled with distinctly non-Christmas feelings. A single-worded question erupts from deep within me, a great Joban WHY. Why, why, why does this monstrosity exist? And why is he barbecuing?
Unfortunately for us, the Feast of the Incarnation has become tame. It is far too easy, perhaps unavoidable, to gorge oneself with Christmas treacle each December – cloying, sanitized depictions of a mystery that should rattle the bones.
And so, dear reader, I bring you glad tidings of danger and dread, an antidote to holiday hangovers from too much sentimentality: three brief ruminations that reveal the darker, dirtier, dangerous side of Christmas. (If these don’t quite work, you can also do a Santa purge by meditating on the Real St. Nick punching a heretic at the council of Nicaea.)
You know this, but I’m just reminding you. The Son of God is born in filth and poverty. A stable, yes – but not a pristine barn full of thoroughbreds on a sprawling estate owned by WASPs. No, a cave for beasts, smelling of shit and damp hay. The Eternal Word of the Father, God’s complete self-revelation us, becomes flesh and is tucked into a trough for animals. His flailing arms are bound with strips of cloth, because the body God has taken for himself is impossibly weak and frail.
His coming is announced with some fanfare; an army of angelic beings puts on a dazzling show – but for shepherds. Forget the clean, wholesome, noble depictions you’ve seen. These are men who rove and sleep with dumb sheep, who absorb their stink, men who huddle on the lowest social rung. God has descended not just to humankind, but its dregs. He comes to us in humility so profound and abject, it should turn our stomachs.
The second act of the nativity story, told by Matthew, is harrowing. The coming of our Savior occurs against a backdrop of horrific evil. The three wise men from the East, roundly celebrated in greeting cards and song, inadvertently precipitate a slaughter of toddlers and infants by tipping off King Herod that a Messiah is to be born. Herod, cruel, powerful, and deeply insecure, orders a sweeping child massacre in order to get rid of the rumored Boy King. These children, the Holy Innocents, are memorialized during the Christmas Octave on December 28. They are considered as martyrs in Church tradition, innocents killed for the sake of Christ.
Both Matthew and Luke, in their accounts of Jesus’ infancy, draw contrasts between corrupt earthly power and the gentle, humble advent of the Messiah. There’s Caesar Augustus, Ruler of the World, tallying up his subjects in order to measure the vastness of his temporal power – completely unaware that among these subjects hides his God. And King Herod, dealing out death until he himself dies, in a futile attempt to kill the One who will conquer death by dying.
Everything is being upended, turned inside out – all that we think we know.
After the Nativity, in Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary present the infant Jesus in the temple, following Jewish custom. They bring, as their sacrifice, two small birds – a sacrifice suitable for the destitute. Here, an epiphany occurs: Simeon the prophet and Anna the prophetess recognize Jesus for Who He Is. But Simeon’s words are a harbinger of something darker; they conclude with a promise to Mary that a sword shall pierce your heart also. This holy infant will become the crucified Christ. His birth, his infancy, already looks forward to his suffering and death.
There’s a famous icon of Mary and the infant Christ that depicts this connection between his coming and his dying: Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Mary looks at us with hooded eyes, embracing her firstborn son. He leans in toward her, clutching her hand with both of his, his tiny hands encircling her thumb. His face looks behind him and upward, toward an angel who hovers above, holding the instruments of the crucifixion, the tools that will one day torture this body still so young and new. From one of Christ’s feet hangs a sandal, as if he has rushed up in fear to his mother. The hope and joy and light of Christmas anticipate the daybreak of Easter, but this will only come by way of the cross.
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The season of Advent is over; Christmastide is here. Even as we rejoice, though, we carry Advent with us. We are yet in that time of waiting, hoping, keeping vigil through the long night. We light our feeble candles and peer into the dark, seeing and not seeing the One who is to come.