Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Impossibilities

I never really bought into the whole Santa thing.  I don't know how much my parents really pulled for the old guy, but I know they put some effort into it.  We had a tradition where Santa would bring us new pajamas on Christmas Eve, and then we'd wear them that night and have cute new pajamas to take Christmas morning pictures in.  And Mom and Dad told me that Santa had come in after I was asleep to kiss me good night.  Honestly, that freaked me out a little.  I was mainly concerned that his beard had scratched my face.  Were there cookie crumbs stuck in that beard?  Had he kissed Rudolph with the same mouth he kissed me?  Did I have reindeer cooties?  Shudder.

And I don't know how old I was when I stopped buying into the whole flying reindeer gig, but I don't think I was very old.  I mean, I didn't OFFICIALLY stop believing until I was well into elementary school, but I had my suspicions all along.  Our house didn't have a chimney.  I never heard sleigh bells or reindeer on the roof.  One time I *thought* I saw Rudolph's glowing nose, but even then I had some suspicions that it was just the neighbor across the street backing out of her driveway.  And there were too many rumors floating around that he wasn't real, that moms and dads were responsible for putting out all those toys.  And I guess it all made sense.  So when I was about eight or nine and heard mom sneak into my room at night to put Bonnie Bell lip gloss in the stocking at the end of my bed, I was just sort of relieved to know it had all been a big joke.  I never saw it as a lie; I saw it as a joke.  Ha ha.  Flying reindeer.  Fat guy in a sleigh!  A clever deception indeed!

Some of my friends, however, cried when they discovered Santa wasn't real.  I mean, I've got a great imagination and all, but I couldn't understand how they had gotten SO caught up in the Santa game.  Maybe their parents had made a bigger deal out of him or something, I don't know.  All I know is that I didn't understand how anyone could be THAT duped by such a crazy story.

But when you really think about it, Christmas is kind of a crazy story.  Most people have heard it so many times that it actually becomes boring, or at least unremarkable.  We see the plays with Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus in the manger.  We hear of the Inn Keeper turning the "great with child" mother away.  We read about the angels telling the shepherds about Jesus.  The wise men go to see him.  Blah blah.  Great story.  Now lets have a "Happy Birthday Jesus" cake and open some presents.

It's easy to get that way.  I mean, how many times have you read (or at least heard) this Scripture:

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David;  and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.  And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  (Luke 1:30-37)

It's easy to skip over it without really thinking--because I, like a lot of my readers, have probably read or heard this passage a bazgillion times since childhood.  But here's the thing.  To my knowledge, I've never been visited by an angel (I don't think).  And if I've entertained any angels unaware, none of them have had a message like this for me.  Do you get what the angel said to Mary?  "You will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give Him David's throne, and He will reign over Jacob forever, and His Kingdom will never end."  Gabriel is pretty much telling Mary who this child is--the one spoken of in Prophecy.  The heir promised to David, the ruler over all Israel, the Everlasting Ruler, the Messiah!  

Mary's response is interesting.  I don't know if she really heard all of what the angel Gabriel told her.  I mean,  she was probably still kind of in shock that an angel had visited her at all.  And what he said wasn't making any sense.  She couldn't even wrap her brain around his words.  She didn't ask about the Messiah.  She didn't marvel that the Prophecy was going to be fulfilled through her.  She asked a very basic question about a very practical issue.  It didn't concern the redemption of mankind or the changing of the world.  It just involved her.  "How am I going to have a son when I haven't had sex?"  

She missed the bigger picture, and you know, I figure most of us would have reacted in a similar way.  Well, actually, most of us would have probably figured we were hallucinating or something.  Because people don't see angels.  God doesn't speak to His people in that way.  Most of us couldn't even believe something like that, let alone the real weightiness of what Gabriel came to say.  Most of us couldn't believe that God, God Almighty, the One against whom we had rebelled, was coming down in flesh, fully man, born as men are born, in the womb of a woman.

And all Mary could do was say, "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

But I imagine that when the initial shock wore off, she started wondering why God had chosen her.  She must have known that God didn't need her.  In order to accomplish the act of coming down to us in human form, God did require a womb--but why Mary's womb?  He could have chosen anyone.  He chose her, a woman who was simply willing to accept the ridiculousness of what He had chosen to do.  

And what of Joseph, Mary's betrothed?  

When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.  But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

Angels AND dreams??  It's easy to read about this story as if it were completely unremarkable, but how would you react if you heard a man say that he had a dream about an angel?  And what a weird message?  If  I heard a man say, "I had a dream about an angel.  The angel told me my betrothed was pregnant, but it's okay, because the Holy Spirit is the baby daddy.  So I'm just going to take her as my wife," well, I'd figure this guy was delusional or otherwise trying to cover up his own baby-daddy-ness.

And these weren't the only dreams Joseph had about angels.  He had another telling him to flee to Egypt, and another telling him it was safe to return from Egypt and ANOTHER telling him to go to Galilee.  What's with all the famous Biblical Josephs being dreamers?  

Oh, and the Wise Men had some weird angel dreams, too.  The angel told them not to go back to Herod after they saw Jesus.  But these guys had spent a great deal of time staring at the stars, and they were even crazy enough to follow one.  In fact, the Scriptures say that they were OVERJOYED to see this star, this sign that they believed would lead them to a child, to a king, to a Messiah.  We read it like it's unremarkable, but WISE men putting all their hope in a star?  Is that unremarkable?

And let's not forget the shepherds, the ones who had obviously been out watching their sheep a little too long...

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:8-14)

It's interesting that these angels said what the first angel said to Mary and what the angel said to Joseph in his dream: Don't be afraid.  I think it might be because, duh, most people would be pretty frightened if an angel appeared to them.  But when the angel appeared to Mary and when the angel appeared to the shepherds and when the angel appeared to Joseph, every time the angel explained WHY they shouldn't be afraid.  To Mary: "Don't be afraid, FOR you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and bear a Son, and you will name Him Jesus.  He will be great and He will be called Son of the Most High."  To Joseph: "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife FOR the child in her is conceived of the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son and you will name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."  To the shepherds: "Don't be afraid, FOR I bring you good news of great joy, for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

While, yes, I'm sure the angels were a little frightening, I don't think that's why they said, "Don't be afraid."  There was something deeper there.  Because ever since Adam and Eve sinned and invited sinfulness into the world, there has been a need to hide our nakedness and shame.  Yet the wonderful, crazy, ridiculous miracle of Christmas is that we don't have to hide anymore.  God Himself has come down to be with us, to take our humanity and shamefulness upon Himself.  He was born as a baby (in a stable, in a feeding trough--which is another remarkable aspect of the Christmas story that we've grown immune to), He lived as a man, He died as a sacrifice, and He rose again as the conquering King.  

When you think of all the strange things of Christmas, the characters who saw angels and dreamed dreams, all of that pales in comparison to the absolute insanity of a Father who loved His sinful creation enough to become like order that we could become like Him.

Flying reindeer and magic sleighs are impossible, but they don't seem nearly as crazy as the real Christmas story.  

God with us?  Emmanuel?  

Now THAT's impossible.

Yet, the angel told Mary that nothing is impossible with God.

And I, like Mary, like Joseph, like the shepherds and the wise men and all the other crazy people in the Christmas story...

...I believe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Joy of Getting

I wrote this as part of a blog post near the beginning of September last year.  I was thinking about it and wanted to share it again:

So what is the main reason why I love Christmas? Is it the music? Is it the food? Is it the weather (I actually hate cold and snow, unless it's at Christmas!)? Is it the movies? Is it something I inherited from my grandmother, who LOVED Christmas and celebrated it all year long?

What's the Sunday School answer here? What am I supposed to say? I'm supposed to say, "I love Christmas because it's Jesus' birthday!" But...that's not the main reason why I love Christmas. Why? I guess it's because I'm selfish.

When I was about four years old, my mom told me something I never forgot. She probably doesn't even remember saying this, but I remember it vividly. I was unwrapping Christmas presents at my grandparents' house on Christmas afternoon. I'd already gotten the "Santa haul" from home, and now it was time to get the "relatives' haul." I remember the scene very clearly. I was sitting on the floor by the ottoman of the chair by the sliding glass door that overlooked the front porch. One or two of their seventy bazgillion feral cats (they lived out in the country) were probably out on that porch, looking through that door at me, trying to soak in some of the indoor warmth through the glass. I had just opened my last present, and was surrounded by boxes, toys, wrapping paper, and the comic strips my aunt used to wrap presents in. And I turned to my mom and said something. I don't remember what I said, but her response was unforgettable. I was either complaining about how I didn't have any more presents or bragging about how much I'd gotten or something like that, and my mom said something profound. She said, "Ruth, the older you get, the more you're going to want to give things than get things."

I remember that so clearly because it was impossible for my four year old brain to understand that logic. What? How could I EVER be happier giving than getting? Getting stuff is AWESOME; giving stuff means I'll...have to sacrifice. Sacrifice doesn't make sense to most four year olds. In fact, it doesn't make much sense to most adults, either.

And maybe I should be ashamed of myself for admitting this, but my favorite part about Christmas is still NOT about what I give. It's still about what I get. The difference between the four year old me and the thirty-one year old me is that I'm no longer so tremendously excited about getting stuff. The most important part of Christmas is that God gave Himself to me. And I guess that does make me selfish, but the fact is, I need to be selfish, here. I need God. I don't always understand sacrifice, but God understands it well. Giving, love, sacrifice, mercy--that's kind of what He's about. So I do get excited about receiving Him, all the while praising Him for being the holy and righteous Giver, both just and merciful. It takes a certain degree of humility to realize that we don't really have anything to give. We can't be the Giver. But there can be so much joy in taking what we're offered, and God offers what we need. And Christmas is the celebration of the culmination of all the promises of God, which came in the form of a weak, human baby. No...I don't really think I understand the concept of sacrifice at all.

Merry Christmas!