This isn’t another “Shame on you for participating in the commercialization of Christmas” article or blog. Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, shopping for gifts, feasts, and football are the cultural reality and it makes little sense to rail against that which puts smiles on so many faces. I doubt a single person has ever been “delivered” from the secularization of the incarnation of Christ by polemics against Christmas trees, lectures about how the word “Santa” is nothing more than a subliminal rearrangement of the letters which spell out “Satan,” or how poor stewards people are when they incur heavy debts to make others happy. The fact is, I’m not really all that surprised or concerned that secular cultures have minimized, trivialized, and commercialized what C.S. Lewis called “The Grand Miracle.”
But I have no problem with those who, in obedience to the command in Ephesians 5:11 to “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them,” lambast the culture for prostituting the holy event of Christ’s birth. It’s biblical and righteous to expose darkness for what it is. However, my personality is geared a little more toward “appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once delivered to all the saints” (Jude 3). Consequently, my interest in this blog is to point out what we know from Scripture about “The Grand Miracle” and see if it is possible that the faithful might have allowed our perspective of Christmas to become almost counter cultural rather than biblically faithful. In other words, in pushing back against the secularization of Christmas we may have inadvertently wiped away the darkness inherent in the biblical narrative in order to attract (distract?) those who have made it all about Santa and the malls.
Yes, the Bible reveals the miraculous, the angelic, profound joy, and momentous celebration in the account of the nativity of Christ. However, all that can only be fully and truly appreciated if it is nestled faithfully in the context of the great sorrow and heartbreak the Bible puts it in.
For instance, the prophet Isaiah did, in fact, speak of the birth of the Messiah in terms of both light and glory. But look carefully at the context he put it in:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60:1-3).
Darkness. And not just ordinary darkness but “thick darkness.” You begin to sense it when you read the nativity accounts from Matthew and Luke. Mary isn’t exactly enthralled by the angel Gabriel’s visit. In the Old Testament, angelic visitations weren’t always happy occasions (see Genesis 3:24 and 2 Kings 19:35). Before Gabriel says anything regarding specifics he simply says, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). In our modern vernacular it might be said this way: “Hi. God has taken note of you and is closer than you realize.”
Now, in our sappy, superficial, doctrinally stunted, and theologically shallow Christian culture today, most people would shout “Hallelujah” and “Amen” to that kind of angelic greeting. Yet Luke says, “But she [Mary] was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Note that this is before the news of her soon to be miraculous pregnancy. Mary was troubled by what seems to be a rather cheery and promising greeting. That sounds strange to people who think Christianity is built around them, but it makes perfect sense to those who have a grasp of God’s holiness. “The Lord is with you” means many great and wonderful things, but it also means “no more excuses” about why we just can’t do what God has called us to do. I marvel that so many churchgoers think standing before God in judgment is going to be fun (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Mary was right to suspect the presence of God might spell trouble for her. Gabriel goes on to tell her that she will soon be pregnant with a holy Child without having had sex. It just grew a little darker for her as she must have immediately worried about how to explain her pregnancy to the man she was engaged to. Not to mention that premarital or extramarital sex was not exactly socially acceptable to Jews two thousand years ago. What would people (even her own family) think of her? More ominously, what might people do to her?
When Matthew says Joseph “resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19) he is telling us that Joseph was flooded with grief and sorrow. Darkness. Much more than indignation or anger as those emotions would have led him to openly humiliate Mary subjecting her to the punishment set aside for adultery. It took an angel to convince Joseph to continue with the betrothal and marriage. But their relationship would be forever tainted in the eyes of man as evidenced by statements like “We were not born of sexual immorality [like You]” (John 8:41). That makes clear that Joseph and Mary’s marriage was always viewed with public disdain. A never ending pall of darkness surrounded the holy couple.
Time will only permit me to mention other facets of the birth narrative that were infused with darkness. There was the eighty or so mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem to heed Caesar Augustus’ registration requirement (Luke 2:1). Can anyone today even imagine the kind of discomfort Mary experienced nine months into her pregnancy riding a donkey all day long for the better part of a week? How about the unwelcoming and seemingly inhospitable people in Bethlehem who apparently weren’t very concerned about a mother about to give birth to her child (Luke 2:7)? And what does it say about the spiritual state of Israel that Gentiles from distant lands knew more about what was taking place on a spiritual level than any of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-2)?
Finally, there was the horror of Herod’s twisted soul and mind that led to the command to murder all boys in Bethlehem up to the age of two and the subsequent flight to Egypt by the holy family to escape (Matthew 2:13-18). Sweet times, right?
Here’s my point: when we gloss over all the hurt, fear, depression, discomfort, and flat out terror that Joseph and Mary experienced in the birth narratives in Scripture, we unknowingly diminish the glory of the accolades of the light and joy expressed by prophets, Gentiles, shepherds, and the heavenly host. Isaiah’s prophetic word about the birth of Christ is that in the midst of “thick darkness” “your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you”! Outside what appeared to be an unwelcoming and inhospitable town “a multitude of the heavenly host” suddenly appeared to a few seemingly insignificant shepherds saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14)
It is only when you consider the context of “thick darkness” in the nativity narratives that the blessed light and glory of God reaches its full maturity in our hearts, minds, and souls. We’ve got to start telling the story the way the Bible does and not the way we think people want to hear it. Mary was troubled by Gabriel. Joseph was crushed by the news that his fiancé was pregnant. If they were normal human beings they both rolled their eyes and said “Seriously?” when they found out they were going to have to walk eighty miles to Bethlehem. No room. No epidural anesthesia. Flee the country!
Now we’re ready to tell of a favored virgin, a just and faithful husband, a star, a manger, wise men, shepherds, and a heavenly host. And, oh the light. The blessed light. The light of God shining into and overcoming the darkness. Here is the message of the nativity in a single sentence by a gospel writer who didn’t even share the birth story of Jesus:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
Thank God for the overcoming light of Christmas!