Christmas and death. More naturally, we equate Christmas with birth. As a religious holiday, Christmas can become romantic and sentimental. But in reality Christmas is the living Jesus, and Jesus and death have always been in close, real battle.
To “become Christmas”, Jesus first had to die a real death. Only when he tore himself away from Heaven’s blazing light, stripped off the divine powers he held when he breathed Creation into existence, relinquished all authority, all union with God – only then did Christmas come to earth in a bundle of vulnerable flesh, in coldness, darkness and obscurity.
When Mary and Joseph carried their eight-day-old infant into the temple, they encountered Simeon. Full of rejoicing, he recognized the healer of Israel, the helper of the Gentiles: Christmas. Yet this embodiment of Christmas, he told them, would pierce their hearts with a sword. From the very outset of Jesus’ birth, the heavenly Father also knew of the tortures still to befall his one and only Son. The shadow of death is fleet on the heels of Christmas.
Before Jesus was two years old, Herod, driven by cold-hearted jealousies, had slaughtered a whole region’s infants and toddlers, leaving families destitute in his wake. He was bent on the death of Jesus, leaving Rachel to weep, refusing to be comforted.
Every day that Jesus lived on earth, his Christmas to us was a dying. He knew that his love was enough to bring all things back to life, and so he loved much. He gave himself to heal wounded flesh, to serve selfish humanity, to speak the unwanted truth. Hard on the heels of this love was resentment, hatred – execution.
Death has stalked Christmas throughout the centuries. December, 1997, remains firm in my memory. Indigenous civilians worshipping in their small, village chapel in Chiapas, Mexico were murdered by right-wing paramilitary death squads in the midst of their Christmas prayers. Fleeing for their lives like panicked deer, the remaining villagers had become instantly bereft of sons, sisters, fathers, grand-mothers, and babies, homes and land.
Now, December, 2012: Children and teachers, in both Oregon and Connecticut, suddenly and violently ripped out of their families’ arms and lives. An echo of the grief around the globe of other killings – other losses: Afghanistan, Israel, Syria, the Congo – the shaking horror of it is endless.
So, the sword pierces our hearts this year as we turn to the One who is Christmas. His dying to heaven was the beginning of our comfort, because that wasn’t the end of the story. Resting in his tiny frame was the One to whom all souls could cling. Now, every torn and battered heart can reach for his great Comfort.
We are often blind to him and all he wants to give, yet Christ’s healing will one day permeate every cell of Creation. This Christmas we can bring him our bleeding hearts and know that he will wrap us in his robes, for he is acquainted with death.