Christmas Cheer & 2020 Hindsight
One of the curious outworkings of my CrownHeartWorld ministry has been a friendship with a number of filmmakers. The biggest project I have worked with so far was released in theaters last February. The response to Free Burma Rangers was encouraging, and there were all sorts of plans for more showings, but then the pandemic hit. To say that it has been a strange year, for all of us, would be an understatement.
A couple of months ago another filmmaker friend, Josh Spires, called me to talk about nuances in the Christmas story. It was his first attempt at an animated short. We shared ideas about the nature of contrasts throughout the Biblical Story and how they are heightened in the Christmas Story’s promise of joy and peace in the midst of ongoing injustice and hardships. This is what he and his team came up with:
Christmas is a time for remembering and recommitting.
The juxtaposition of the lamb and the wolf is the image of a world without the hope of Christmas and the surprising way of God with us, humbly sharing in our vulnerabilities and hardships. This has always been the story of God’s people, a choice between two ways to live, as a predator striving for dominance, or as one with a commitment to pastoral peace and harmony against all odds.
The Christmas story is the beginning of the climax of a much longer story. From the calling of Abrahan to be blessed to be a blessing, through the Exodus, the rise and fall of Israel and Judah, to the remnant return from exile we read of partial respites and repeated promises to God’s people.
Throughout that story we see light and darkness coexist in an uneven struggle. The tragic poem Lamentations gives a glimpse into the key to hope in the midst of darkness: new mercies. God’s word to us is that our sufferings, whether from our direct sinful choices or from the collective brokenness of a world affected by the cumulative foolish and selfish choices of humanity in general, are grievous, but…
New Mercies come amid old hardships.
When the promises of rescue through the messiah are given to Mary, and Joseph, and the Shepherds, and others, they are invitations to joy and peace. And yet what happens after the promised one is born? The way of the wolf flares through the prideful rage of the ruler Herod — the peace and joy are turned to anguish and lament. What do we do with that?
Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. And then they returned. And then they presented Jesus at the temple and the religious elite were astounded. And Jesus grew in wisdom and began his ministry declaring the availability of experience the rule of God here and now. People experienced joy and hope through his ministry, but those in power once again showed their predator ways and the story ended in torture and death. But did it?
The Resurrection revealed one more reminder: God’s mercies come fresh, over and over, and in the end, they will not fail. Mercy is what triumphs. Mercy is what will last. Mercy is what we are invited to receive, and mercy is what we will commit to extending.
That is what the church’s first martyr, Stephen, exemplifies. Christmastide’s two week festivities has December 25th for the Messiah, December 26th for Stephen. The story of peace challenging the powers, despite the consequences, continued in the first century and continues in our day. As a church we use annual holy days and times of remembering. That remembering gives us freedom to be fully sober in awareness of the harshness of this world, and yet joyful in the confidence of ultimate peace. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Silly Songs as Resistance
The traditions of cultural Christmas have a jarring mix of the sacred and the silly. The Twelve Days of Christmas is an example of a song with no deeper meaning than playfulness during the season focused on giving. Some tried to recast it as a secret chatechism for Catholics during a time of persecution, but historians have debunked that conspiracy thinking for the simple truth: Christmas celebration inspired people to have fun.
Is holiday fun in competition with more church oriented traditions? A jolly man who delivers gifts via flying reindeer seems like a hopeless departure from the original story. But charming holdiay specials like the classic Santa Clause Is Coming to Town show us a bridge between the frivolous and the sublime.
The acts of giving and of cheerfulness, of imagination and delight, can get expressed beyond the scope of the sacred. Yet, it is the scriptural tale that spiritually grounds our childish impulses toward playfulness in the historical narrative and it’s invitation to a commitment to the defiant belief that innocenct lost is not unfindable. As David Bentley Hart explains, “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.”
2020 has been difficult. The whole world has been challenged by a pandemic. Here in the US we have been divided in what we believe is true and what we believe matters going forward. What lies ahead are some changes in direction, but no signs of easy and interrupted peace. 2021 offers hope, but like the Christmas story reminds us, hope must walk through difficult places on the way to fulfillment.
What we can learn through all of this is a fresh appreciation of what our hope really is. Responsible participation in society, including politics, matters but falls short of any ultimate hope. Pendulums swing and nations toss about like waves on the seas. Health is more hopeful this year with vaccinations rolling out, but we will always be vulnerable to so many afflictions in this world. What encourages me today is expressed by another filmmaker friend, Elizabeth Mizrael in a year end Instragam post:
These past few months we have experienced both miracles and sorrows. The birth of a new daughter, Gianna; the 14 year death anniversary of my mother; the birthdays and death anniversaries of my dear friends Stephanie and Lisa, both taken by acts of violence; the sudden death of my two young cousins, Scott and Carly; Covid in our own household; the loving support of friends and family in hard times. As I hold this precious being, three months into her life here, I am reminded of the words of GK Chesterton- that the world, when all is said and done, is a wonderful and beautiful place and that we refuse to die while we are still alive. #gkchesterton