“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…,” and Andy Williams isn’t the only one who thinks so. A lot of people find Christmas to be a season when our hearts are turned away from the cares and concerns of life (after the decorating, shopping, and cooking, of course) to deeper things, higher thoughts, and tender feelings. Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s character in Talladega Nights (and this is not an endorsement; don’t say, “Well, Bishop Edgar told us to go watch it”) says he likes, “the Christmas Jesus best,” and prays, “Dear 8lb 6oz newborn infant Jesus…”.
In his powerful novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving has his protagonist, John Wheelwright, sitting in a Cathedral on a Christmas Eve, musing, “Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas…”
What is it about Christmas? What’s the potency of the image of Jesus, the infant son of Mary and Joseph, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn?
There’s something disarming—enchanting even—here. As hurt and hardened as we might be by the brokenness of this fallen world impinging on our “right to happiness,” (Where’d anyone ever come up with the idea that the world could be construed in such a way that happiness is a guarantee?) that we find our cold and calloused hearts beginning to soften at the sight of the creche.
In an essay for The New York Times (November 18, 1956), CS Lewis wrote…
“Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
I think that the Incarnation, our Lord bringing himself so low that he entered this life as a helpless infant, subject to the hardships we ourselves face: hunger, cold, dependence, helplessness in the face of evil, allows us to warm to the subject. In bypassing our “watchful dragons” with divine vulnerability, the Nativity opens us to hear (cue Paul Harvey)… the rest of the story.
And Christmas is the beginning, not the whole. Here, let’s turn to the great English metaphysical poet (but even greater Anglican priest and preacher) John Donne.
As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1624, Donne took to the pulpit with this very story as his backdrop, “The whole life of Christ was a continual passion;” he preached, “others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.”
You see, continuing with Donne here, God’s grace and mercy are shot through this story and the whole story of the New Testament. Christ Jesus as babe in a manger, Christ Jesus as teacher, Christ Jesus as miracle-worker, Christ Jesus as suffering sacrifice; Christ Jesus who rose again, ascended to the Father’s right hand, and will come again as judge over the whole wicked world—all mercy, grace, and goodness. The babe in the manger simply disarms us, opens the door of our hearts, and ushers in the whole of God’s redeeming love.
Donne went on in that sermon, “…God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. In paradise the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always Autumn; His mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask our daily bread, and God never says, you should have come yesterday; he never says you must again tomorrow, but today if you will hear His voice, today he will hear you.
“If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgment together; He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; He can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now—wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now—now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the Spring, but as the Sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in the harvest, to fill all penuries. All occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.” (Sermon given at St Paul’s, Christmas Day, in the Evening, 1624)
My prayer for you this Christmas is that the wondrous story of the baby born to the Virgin Mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, in lowly estate would open your heart and mind anew to the fullness of the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Beth and I, together with our whole family, wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.
The Rt. Revd Chip Edgar
Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina