Perfecting Christmas

A few weeks ago, I found myself in line at a discount store looking exactly like the Mom I thought I would never be—the one with too many Christmas presents for her kid. Looking for something entirely different, I had wandered into the children’s section and found a fantastic stash of very nice, discounted toys.

Now, my husband and I had decided that we didn’t really have to get our daughter much, if anything for Christmas. She’s 16 months old, we thought. She won’t know the difference. Plus, she’s got grandparents and aunts and uncles who are getting her things.

But here I stood, in line, with a pile in my arms that reached to my nose.  Because these were such good deals, and the kind of toys we wanted her to have. A wonderful soft fabric nativity set…a stuffed globe with little Velcro people-of-the-world. And, the best find, a complete wooden Noah’s Ark set, brightly painted, not to mention…biblical!

And, this year particularly, I was relieved that these toys were not made in China. I’d read the boxes carefully—European made, no lead paint. Maybe Zora was going to be a little more spoiled than I’d planned, but she was going to be spoiled safely.

Then I got home and peeked into the Noah’s Ark box…and there they were…the other great no-no of children’s toys this season…the tiny magnets, glued into the backs of the little animals. We had to make a decision—return it, or keep it. After some careful parental picking and poking, we decided those magnets were secure. And the ark went under the tree, with our commitment to regular inspections.

This year has been the Christmas of toy safety. Magnets, lead paint, chemical-leeching plastics, fear of toys made with low standards or no standards. And so many parents have faced a decision about gift giving—what is safe, what is safe enough, and, worst decision of all, what do I do about the toy my kid has begging for since September, the toy that I’ve looked at and I just can’t stomach putting under the tree?

Already in early December, articles were popping up about how to prepare children for the disappointment when the one thing they wanted most didn’t make it under the tree. Professionals with degrees and years of experience weighed in about how to diffuse, dissect and distract, your child’s disappointment.

Even if your Christmas had little to do with toys, there is something about the holiday that can be disappointing.

The weeks of planning, anticipating, and build-up are over: the presents are opened, the cookies are picked over, the visits are coming to an end, the tree is shedding needles all over the living room. And in the after-glow of the holiday, for most of us, what happened is not everything we had expected and hoped for.

There are kinks in the new video game system, the best toy ever isn’t so great when it’s been unwrapped for a few days, it was good, but stressful, to see family, the pies got a little bit burnt, or the ham was too dry, your friends’ Christmas letters detail a happier year than yours.

You miss the people who are gone from your life—separated by distance or death, or disagreement.

And those dry-pine needles really hurt when you step on them.

 It’s not my intention to tell you that this disappointment is a symptom of a society that forgets that Christ is at the center of Christmas. Many of the traditions and trappings of the season are fine and good things, things that can remind us of the gift of Jesus Christ.

But what if even the disappointment is part of that reminder?

In an Advent sermon, Doug Brouwer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, and a former neighbor of ours in Wheaton, says that this build-up and the disappointment that follows in something we have in common with the first Christmas…because what the people of Israel were looking for was a Messiah, someone who would bring salvation of a powerful, political sort, someone who would, Brouwer says “kick Caesar in the teeth and send Herod packing”.

It makes good sense that they would be looking for this sort of savior. Ancient Jewish history involves one conquest after another. The minute another great empire rose in the Middle East, Israel would get trampled, over and over and over again. Israel had been building up this idea of a Messiah, someone who would save them, for generations.

Isaiah 63 is a passage meant to give hope to people waiting for salvation from an empire in one of those many many dark times in Israel’s history. And, while the verses we read are beautiful and comforting, the verses surrounding include a picture of a mighty leader, stained with the blood of enemies conquered, striding victorious into Jerusalem. This was a Messiah to look out for. This was a Messiah who could do something.

Now think about it—for all the fuss we make about the events of Christmas, was it really that spectacular an event? A poor couple giving birth in the only place they could find? And how many shepherds could there have been listening to the angels? A handful?

At the time of his birth, families all over Judea were naming their sons Jesus, “Savior”, because their hopes were so high. Mary and Joseph knew their Jesus was special, but we can only assume that their hopes for him were similar to what everyone else expected from a savior.

But from the very beginning, I wonder if Mary and Joseph started to realize that this child wasn’t going to be the kind of show-stopping revolutionary they were expecting. Within that first year, instead of skyrocketing to renown, things went pretty sour for them.

The gospel story for this Sunday is not a Christmas favorite: Matthew 2:13-23 gets left out of our Christmas services. And there is a reason we don’t read this section of Matthew until a few days after Christmas itself…it’s a downer. —all the glitter and glow has worn off of the sweet Christmas-Eve nativity and scene and Matthew offers up this horrible story: murder, massacre, deception, exile. Suddenly, Baby Jesus and his parents are seeking political asylum in Egypt, and the towns around Bethlehem are filled with wailing mothers.

It is an all-too vivid reminder that this Jesus, God among us, was so very truly one of us that he was vulnerable, vulnerable like the least-of-these people of this world:  vulnerable to the whims of a dictator, to the violence of an army, to hunger and illness, to the dangers of travel. It’s a reminder that Jesus, like us, was completely human, and that every dear little infant breath he took was one breath closer to his death.

In the Christian tradition, with the benefit of Biblical hindsight, we are no less immune to forgetting how insignificant our Messiah looks, on the surface at least.

 There’s a traditional way of thinking in Christian theology that we don’t talk about so much anymore, but it occasionally appears when we listen to older Christmas carols: Jesus is the apex of humanity. The top. The perfection. The best. I heard it again this year when I listened to the broadcast of the Service of Lessons and Carols from Kings College Cambridge. One of the carols was a newer composition using words from a 19th century American poet, Richard Watson Gilder:


Stardust and vaporous light.

The mist of worlds born,

A shuddering in the awful night

Of winds that bring the morn


Now comes the dawn: the circling earth;

Creatures that fly and crawl;

And man, that last, imperial birth;

And Christ, the flower of all.

Gilder sets humans as the final, amazing piece of creation, and Jesus as the flower of all, the one thing that perfects everything else. Jesus is humanity, made completely and totally perfect. The great mystery of it: Jesus Christ, God-who-creates, is also the very crowning glory of the whole creation.

But now, think backwards for a second…if you were God, planning this all out, putting together such a great and beautiful mystery as the incarnation, might there not be some more spectacular way to introduce Jesus Christ to the world?

 But when the time comes, a peasant woman gave birth to an insignificant baby.

On Christmas Eve, our junior choir sang these words “Who would send a baby?” The singing was so sweet and clear that I got lost in the music and missed the words until later. Honestly, who WOULD send a baby? How on earth was that a wise choice on God’s part?

Even if the Messiah we are looking out for is not the anti-Roman freedom fighter, think about the things we ask God to be saved from: Sin, brokenness, destructive habits, abusive relationships, global warming, political, social, economic injustice, sickness, war, death and disease.

Who would send a baby?

We baptize Jackson today, and dear and sweet and precious as he is, great as the hopes we have his future, I cannot imagine sending him single-handed to conquer all the trials and troubles of the world.  If I were going to pin my hopes to any one person, I’d be quicker to pick someone with experience, charisma, a decent education, and enough status to have a little pull with the powerful players of the world.

And yet, I don’t know if I can imagine any other way for God to come among us.

Maybe this is just a characteristic of my own stubborn personality, but I imagine some of you share this…I have a very hard time accepting help from someone who is somehow “elevated” from the place where I find myself.

But, in the midst of disappointment, the most effective help seems to come from someone who can come alongside me…not even from someone who can say, “Hey, I understand, I’ve been there.” The best help comes from someone who can come along side me, sit next to me in the place where I am disappointed and despairing, someone who will simply be presence.

A few months ago, I heard a great story about how to care for new parents: a couple decided to show up on the doorstep of a new parents. They stood there and said, “Without any judgment about how you’re doing, we’re here You might just need an adult to talk to, or someone to have coffee with, but we will do anything you need done, even if it’s scrubbing your toilet.” The parents wept and asked them to clean the shower.

Like Isaiah says, we are often saved by presence.

And this idea that God would send a baby becomes amazing—not because babies are so dear and sweet, but because it places God, God himself, where we all begin. It puts God completely level footing with us. It allows God to sit down next to us, in the places where we are disappointed and despairing. This is he amazing mystery, the incredible perfection, of the incarnation…God among us, God one of us.

Even deeper, there’s a symmetry about the idea of salvation coming through someone who is one of us. Hebrews 2 points to this—God sent someone who could be one of, who could go ahead of us, show us the way, and by entering into the same things we experience, give us full understanding and full redemption.

Who would send a baby to be the redeemer? A God who cared too much that he could do nothing less than enter into our experience.

This is not a raw-fisted manifestation of God’s power and glory. It’s a demonstration of the power of God’s compassion.

Maybe can start to understand what it means that God comes along beside us, as one of us. Because, here’s the amazing thing—Not only does God come to us, come alongside of us, God names us as his own, part of the family, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. And Jesus becomes our pattern.

This is the perfection of the plan…even if you personally just had the best Christmas ever, even if everything went perfectly for you, we live in a world that is shattered by disappointment…whether those disappointments are small…broken toys, burnt pies, and unmet expectation; whether they are large…political assassinations, wars that drag on, and environmental problems that seem to huge to deal with…

It is in the mystery of this crazy plan of God’s—to come among us as a baby, as one of us, as one of the least-of-these—it is in the mystery of this incarnation that we can begin living out of places of disappointment and despair.

If Jesus is our older brother, our pattern, one who we admire and follow, what does that mean?

A few weeks ago, Carl mentioned the new book of Mother Teresa’s writings. When it hit the shelves a few months ago, the remarkable thing to so many people was that she had experienced long periods where God was silent to her.

I’ve been reading this book, and I’m not to the silent part yet, but I’m already blown away by something else: This woman such a complete fervor to experience what Christ experienced. She could not imagine living a faithful life without courting suffering, being among those with the greatest need and living as one of them. Her passion for this was so great that she nearly became a pest to priests and bishops around her as she begged for permission to establish a religious order in which she could live this life.

But she also had incredible humility, even to the point that she seems terribly unaware of her own gifts. This is, after all, one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. But when she writes, with complete sincerity she describes herself as someone who is not special or gifted.

Except for one thing: she longs to be united with Jesus…to be as much like him as she can be, to follow wherever he leads, to the point of suffering.

She recognizes that this longing is her gift.

So often, we think there is no way for us to live up to Jesus’ example. There is no way for us to make a difference in this world. We don’t have the incredible gifts it would take to cure disease, feed the hungry, comfort the mourning, set things right in the world, repair the brokenness of the earth,

And truly, we can’t be Jesus. But Jesus is our older brother, the pioneer and perfecter. We have been granted an example, and we have been granted his presence. More than that, we have been adopted into his family, and united with him in our baptism.

The perfection in Christmas is not the manger scene, or the angel songs—it doesn’t stop there–God’s plan goes farther than that. It is the work that God has come to do in this world, God among us, God one of us, God with us as we work to show the world the glory of this baby, Jesus Christ. The perfection is the God who comes among us, who lives with us in our despair, disappointment, and suffering, and by joining us in those places, redeeming this world for the glory of Jesus Christ.