A question - who is the greatest threat to Christmas - the secularists who want to rip the heart out of Christmas, to take Christ out of Christmas and turn it into a bland, innocuous mish-mash of political correctness - or the sentimentalists who want to detach the Christmas story from the real world of infant massacres, bloody tyrants and asylum-seeking and consign it to a Walt Disney world of religious fantasy, a world of twinkling stars and dancing angels and cute, little babies? For me, the greater threat to Christmas comes from those who would trivialize it by swathing it in religious sentimentality.
Christmas is not about a soft, darling baby wrapped up in cotton-wool sentimentality. Christmas rather is about a fierce and passionate God, about God's irrepressible zeal for us, his indefatigable commitment not to leave us abandoned. Not to leave us in the darkness of political, social or personal tyrannies. When the angel spoke to Mary, he made a play on words. He said, you shall call his name Jesus, and he shall be nicknamed Emmanuel, which translates 'God with us'. Christmas is not about a cute, little baby.
The first Christmas came about because of a fierce and passionate desire on God's part to 'be with us', to be involved neck and crop in the human condition - our losses, our recessions, our disappointed and fractured relationships, the deaths we've had in the past year; the difficulties, the addictions, the traumas; things that turn us upside down and leave us winded, battered and broken. The true Christmas message is that God refuses to leave us alone but wants to reach out and be with us. God, the most passionate of Lovers, wants to be Immanuel. Let me illustrate this with a true story from the United States. The story actually mentions a baby because it's told by a woman, the baby's mother, but the point of the story lies far beyond the baby. It tells of God's fierce passion for us. Here is the mother's story:
"It was Sunday, Christmas Day. Our family had spent a holidy in San Francisco with my husband's parents, but in order for us to be back at work on Monday we found ourselves driving the 400 miles back home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day. We stopped for lunch in King City. The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. I heard Erik, my one-year old, squeal with glee. 'Hi there', the two words he always thought were one. 'Hi there', and he pounded his fat, baby hands - whack, whack, whack - on the metal high chair. His face was alive with excitement, his eyes were wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled and giggled, and then I saw the source of his merriment. And my eyes could not take it in all at once.
A tattered rag of a coat, dirty, greasy and worn; baggy trousers; spindly body; toes that poked out of would-be shoes; and a face like none other - gums as bare as Erik's. 'Hi there, baby, hi there, big boy, I see ya, Buster'. My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between 'What do we do?' and 'Poor devil'. Our meal came and the banging and the noise continued. Now the old bum was shouting across the room - 'Do you know patty cake? Atta boy. Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look! He knows peek-a-boo!' Erik continued to laugh and answer 'Hi there'. Every call was echoed. Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance. I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year old said 'Why is that old man talking so loud?' Dennis went to pay the bill, imploring me to get Erik and meet him in the car park. 'Lord, just let me get out of here before he speaks to me or Erik' and I bolted for the door.
It soon was obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, trying to sidestep him and any foul air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, his eyes still riveted on his best friend, leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms to a baby's pick-me-up-position. In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide. The bum's eyes both asked and implored 'Would you let me hold your baby?' There was no need for me to answer, since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man's.
Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny hand upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed and I saw tears hover beneath the lashes. His aged hands, full of grime and pain, gently, so gently, cradled my baby's bottom and stroked his back. I stood awestruck.
The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm, commanding voice - 'You take care of this baby'. And somehow I managed 'I will' from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest, unwillingly, as though he was in pain. I held my arms open to receive my baby, and again the gentleman addressed me 'God bless you, ma'am. You've given me my Christmas gift'. I said nothing more than a muttered 'Thanks'. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly. And why I was saying 'My God, forgive me. Forgive me'."
May I suggest that the meaning of Christmas is Erik. Erik is God. Erik is Christmas. Erik is God's loving outstretched arms, God's irrepressible zeal for us, God's fierce passion for us tattered bums with our tattered lives, our tattered hurts, our tattered relationships and our tattered sins. Erik is two arms, determined to lovingly break into our lives. Erik is a fierce, passionate little baby, who makes no distinctions, who breaks down man-made barriers in order to embrace the lowest, the least, the last and the lost. And that's what Christmas is all about. It does not drip with sentimentality. It is not cuddly soft. It is as hot and as hard as any passionate romance. It is the consummation of God's desire to be with us. And that's why we celebrate.
If God is not with us and God has not embraced our tattered lives, then woe is us. There is no hope. And there is no light, only darkness and emptiness. And we are simply here tonight out of fruitless hope, pressurized routine, or empty sentimentality. But if we are here because of arms reaching out towards us, if we are here like rag-tag, beery shepherds to kneel and rejoice, then we have captured the essence of Christmas: Emmanuel, the passionate God, has had his way with us and has hugged us fiercely.
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