The Best and Worst of Times

   The Best and Worst of Times 

Charles Dickens wrote of the advance of the French Revolution that it was both the best of times and the worst of times.  It was a time of anticipation, borne along by hope, but it was also a period during which the oppression of poverty and despair abounded.

Christmas affords a similar duality of sentiment, though more a spiritual than a social one.  We are presented with two seemingly alternate expressions of Christmas, the one ostensibly at fundamental odds with the other.

The one is profoundly religious in nature; it is, after all, at least according to tradition and history, the time during which we honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, reckoned by Christians as the Savior and Lord of the world who gives hope and meaning to life.

The other is decidedly secular in nature; it has become, certainly for the elites of academia, government and commerce, a time during which all public traces of religiosity are ruled unconstitutional, yet a time set aside for frenzied shopping and spending.

It is not for me to belabor an-already well-known analysis of battle-lines already drawn, nor to articulate the pressing fear that such seasonal secularization does nothing more than denude Christmas of its romance, let alone its theological and historical veracity.

Nor is it for me to speak of the spoliation of our children, one that enhances neither the genuine spirit of the season, a season readily and instinctively embraced by our little ones, nor their capacity for fulfillment, despite its temporary forms of gratification.

I would, if I were so inclined, be nothing more than another commentating blowhard.  Minds better than mine have already proven more adept at such musings.  And anyone still reading would be at risk for becoming more grimly Scroogian as the result.

I do suggest, however, that there need not be any such fissure.  Christmas speaks to the greatest Gift and Act of Giving of them all; why need there be any such separation of Christ from culture, at least amongst Christians?

The prophet Isaiah holds forth a promise of such exquisite depth of giftedness that his prophecy will never stop resounding through the ages or resonating in the hearts and minds of “the poor in spirit.”  It is worth articulating and repeating:

“There will be no more gloom for those living in distress.  In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by way of the sea, along the Jordan –

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.  You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing plunder. 

“For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for fire.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.  And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

“Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David’s throne and over His Kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:1-7)

Has ever the secular and commercial world so razzled and dazzled the world with such a lavish bestowal of merriment and joy on behalf of the so-called “holiday season?”  One thinks not; frankly, it all looks so cheap and tawdry by comparison. 

Our gracious God suffuses our lives with His generous giving on a sustained basis, with the treasury of heaven footing the bill, rather than stuffing them all in one frenetically-applied month, resulting in financial and emotional squalor for months to come.

Consider the substance of the prophecy:  There was darkness and gloom, but there will be honor and light.  Ask one who was blind to articulate what it was like to finally receive sight!  Joy will fill both countenance and speech.

Find out from one who has known the oppression of depression what it was like when joy drove out such grimness of soul and you will begin to capture the experience of Isaiah’s vision of divine giving and human receiving.

What must it be like for a mother to receive her son or daughter back from Iraq or Afghanistan after an entire year of worry and fear; for that matter, ask the returning soldier what it is like to be restored to home and family after such a tour of duty!

We have been given a Savior and those who have been saved are entrusted with the mandate of giving light to the world and serving as salt to the earth (Matthew 5:13-16).  Jesus is God’s gift to us and we become His gift to the world as Christ’s emissaries.

God is good!  We have known His goodness and His goodness must be made known by us.  We worship Him in the sanctuary of our souls, but we serve Him (and worship Him) amidst the prevailing culture, however secularized it has become.

I have a Christmas confession:  I rather like the outburst of light and color.  I especially prize special time with those who are special to us, as well as doing special things for people who haven’t yet been given reason to know how special they are.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the joy of the Christmas message than for society to shift from routine to robust gear (within constructive reason, of course).  We do it when our team wins a championship; why not in honor of our victory, all thanks to God?

But there is a better way, though it need not be in competition to the culture; rather, it can suffuse our culture, accentuating as it permeates and bolsters – whether our culture and its citizenry can appreciate is another question … but we are, after all, salt and light.

The world breaks forth with gusto; why can’t we do similarly, albeit for a purpose other than money-making, though certainly for making merry?  It’s just and justly a different kind of merriment – Christians are beckoned to shift to a deeper gear of reverence.

Rank commercialism has challenged the very core of Christian culture, but a robustly reverent Christianity can do better than merely compete in a reactive manner:  Christians can simply be true to their Lord – the fruit thereof will speak forthrightly and famously.

First, this practice of canceling Sunday service because it interferes every few years with gift-giving and gift-opening must stop.  Sunday is the Lord’s Day and is doubly so, given the occasional confluence of Christ’s birthday with the Sabbath. 

Second, we can share in variety of ways the fact that there would be no Christmas season but for the birth of our Savior.  I am aware of the fact that the early Christians appropriated the Roman practice of celebrating the winter solstice in order to honor Christ, but honor Him they did then, and honor Him we still can do – even if it means graciously but firmly re-appropriating the season for our Savior.

I distribute editions of the Gospel of Luke throughout the season.  Others may share Christmas songs that speak to our Savior’s birth or beauty or even bounty.  Still others will devote themselves to good works in His Name – Variety, in this matter, is virtue.

Third, we need to humble ourselves in awe of Him.  We’ve lost our awe for Him, or so it seems, and God is on record that He does not take kindly to our lack of respect and reverence for Him.

The traveling magi “bowed down and worshiped Him” when they finally met the Christ-child (Matthew 2:11).  The shepherds found themselves “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).  And an old man named Simeon “took Him (the baby Jesus) in His arms and praised God” (Luke 2:28).

He must be restored to His rightful first-place in our hearts.  Many of us need to repent before He can be so restored, but such restoration alone will bring forth the robust and singular mirth that is meant when we extend those enchanted words – Merry Christmas!

Bradley E. Lacey
December 18, 2011