But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)In the process of maturing in one's thoughts about the Christian faith, it is possible to go back and forth between Christmas and Easter trying to decide which is the most important day for the Church. For a child, of course, Christmas seems to have far more gravity; we get off school for it, and we get a ton of presents. This fact does make one think about the relationship between faith and culture. What would life be like if the year were shifted around, and Easter were the central celebration of the year?
A more mature Christian will say Easter is the most important day for the Church because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead and accomplished our salvation. His death on the cross could not have meant salvation for the human race if not for his resurrection. Christmas doesn't even appear in two out of the four gospels. Easter, however, is the main focus of all the gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament. Without Easter, there is no gospel, hence no Christian faith.
The pendulum can swing back after a bit of contemplation. Without Christmas, the crucifixion couldn't have happened, and the resurrection would be meaningless. More specifically, without the Incarnation, there is no Atonement, because there is no blood. And more than this, Christ taking on human flesh means that human flesh is redeemed and transformed into its former glory. All of the work that Christ has accomplished began on Christmas. You cannot have the end without the beginning.
But there is another reason why I am a big fan of Christmas this year, and that is because Christmas comes really not at the beginning of the story but rather in the middle of it. The New Testament begins with Christmas, but in the larger story of the Bible, Christmas comes rather late in the game. Or in a bigger sense, recognizing that the world has really had billions of years of history, Christmas really comes at such a small, seemingly insignificant moment. When Jesus was first born, it is hard to imagine anyone noticed. Matthew tells us of a few wise men and Luke tells us of some shepherds who saw angels in the sky. Did anyone even believe them? And what difference did it make to them even if they did?
I'm not a very good Christian, in the following sense. During Christmas services, I'm told to think back to the birth of Christ and realize what a great gift has been given to humankind, and then I'm told to think about how this was the beginning of all the Christ accomplished. In other words, I'm told to believe that everything is really finished, that Christ has already done everything for us, and that the appropriate response is to celebrate that with worship and with good deeds. I admit this feels like a strange plan to me. Has it all really been accomplished? Is this really what the world looks like after salvation has already come to earth?
Perhaps it's simply too painful to remember what the world is still like, even after the good news has been preached all over the world. It's painful to remember how fragile life is, the way hurricanes and tsunamis can destroy hundreds and thousands of human lives, the way famine and disease still afflict millions of people daily, the way millions and millions of children go to bed hungry each night, the way corrupt world leaders fail to defend the rights of the most helpless, the way even good people do terrible things to each other, the way even the Church has contributed to the great evil of the world...
There seems to be a certain comfort that comes from hearing that everything has been accomplished already. That means victory is assured, and whatever evil may get in our way, we will ultimately overcome. But sometimes, I admit, this comfort seems rather perverse. The more people talk about what has already been accomplished through Christ, the more it seems to sound like a myth, a fairy tale, a comforting thought to help a man sleep at night. Many times it does feel like such comforts are all we get in this broken world. If we can't successfully lie to ourselves, maybe there simply is no comfort in life and in death.
Mary gets a lot of attention this time of year, even from us Protestants. Songs like "Mary Did You Know?" reflect on the idea that Mary was in the middle of the story, and could not see how it all would end. I guess we are supposed to appreciate the fact that we do see how it ended and how it will end, and we are supposed to wonder what it would have been like for Mary. But I find myself actually understanding Mary right where she is in Luke 2. She treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. She had neither answers nor explanations. She simply pondered what these things could mean.
Most of the time I feel so lost in the middle of a big story that I just can't understand the words "all that Christ accomplished." It's that darn word "accomplished." What about, "is doing" or "has begun"? Maybe I can understand those a little better. And maybe that's why Christmas means so much to me right now. Because in a world that really is so full of darkness, it is the height of conceit to pretend we know where we are going. Those who say they do are deluded. I've seen where it is they're actually going, and it isn't pretty: divisions in the church, hatred toward the outside world, and the neglect and/or destruction of souls who long for real answers to these questions about what's going to happen to this world. If I'm being a bit vague, perhaps my vagueness is a good way to illustrate what the real world is really like.
This Christmas, I am personally recognizing my great lack of ability to actually believe that anything has been accomplished. I'm not saying this isn't a failing on my part. The Church has always insisted that there is a higher reality which we cannot see until our eyes are opened. Perhaps that's what I am missing. In any case, it's something I wrestle with, and it isn't something that beautiful candlelight services can fix.
But while part of it may be a failing, in another sense I am certain that I ought to feel the way I do, because the world really is dark and perplexing. While I may celebrate with my family with all the comforts and conveniences of modern life, I refuse to forget in my heart all of the great mysteries and tragedies of life. How is it that I can be blessed with so much while others suffer with so little? Or on the other hand, how is it that some can find happiness with relatively little, while incredibly wealthy people find only misery? Where is the justice in all of this confusion and conflict? When will there be peace and wholeness?
There is light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of sadness, mercy in the midst of oppression, life in the midst of death. Though millions of children go to sleep hungry, millions more are fed by the generosity of others. Though hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes rage, still millions of people are willing to give their money and in many cases their time and talents toward rebuilding. Though governments oppress their own people, still the voice of reason and justice lives on. Why does it never seem to win? "A sword will pierce your own soul, too"--this, it seems, is the story of all humanity.
This Christmas, I am pondering all these things in my heart. Like Mary, I have no answers or explanations. All I can do is watch. I have seen light in the midst of darkness--but oh, how great is that darkness! Sometimes it seems we are all lost. And that is just when the Christmas story is needed most.