By Douglas Jones
From the Credenda Agenda archive | Volume 14.5
Christmas is impossible. It can’t be done. That woman won’t be silent. It can’t be expressed. Encapsulate all the colors, meanings, music, and history of World War II into one sentence, commas permitted. Now do it with a far more earth-shattering, far more complicated, more unspeakable event. That’s the tension of Christmas.
At the first creation, words were not enough. Too thin. Not even close. The expression had to go deeper, beyond mere words. Angels had to scream at the art—scream at the eagles, scream at the sand, at the elephants, at fire, oysters. “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit couldn’t be captured in words alone, so He used evergreens and walruses. The whole creation is the shout of His personality. But even tidal waves prove insufficient. He overflows. Thus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.” The Christmas sentence. Two sentences, one with a compound predicate. God “has spoken to us by His Son . . . the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person.” More insufficient sentences.
This second creation, this Incarnation was far brighter than the first creation. It built upon the first and turned it upside down. “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” Christmas turned creation inside out; it broke the stranglehold of death; it thickened water. How could we even begin to express it? Wineskins could not hold it. Normandy was cheesecake. Even John who gave us the Christmas sentence gave up. He gave us word upon word, sentence upon sentence and then breathed his last, “even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” A fine trick. And yet we’re expected to express it: “And teach them to your children and your grandchildren.” And “tell it to the generation following.” Very funny. Very cruel.
It’s impossible, but neither can we hold it in. It pushes our skin out to its breaking point. Painful adoration. Stretch marks. We’re pressed from within. She couldn’t hold it in.
“And Mary said: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” Mary, Mary, don’t you know that Christmas is a pagan holiday? Hold your words in. Be silent. “For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” Vixen.
If she can’t hold in Christmas, why should we even try? It’s a lost cause. Imagine the tension of living in the covenant in the centuries before Messiah. The conflict is stark; the psychology twisted, longing for relief. “The prophets proclaim justice: Israel will certainly be judged for disobedience.
But they also proclaim grace: God is coming to redeem his people. . . . Israel’s sins are worse than those of the pagan nations of Canaan, even of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed. How can a just God do anything less than wipe them out entirely? Yet the promise of grace comes again. God will surely redeem his people. But how can He wipe them out and redeem them at the same time? It seems as though God’s justice violates His mercy and vice versa. God is, it seems, in a bind. If He redeems, He must wink at sin; if He judges, He must renege on His promise. . . . God seems to be wanting precisely to build the tension, and build, and build. . . . And then comes Jesus. The wait is over.”—John Frame. Oh the agony of life without Christmas. No wonder Mary sings. She carries life from the dead, light from darkness, home from exile. “Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman.” Imagine sitting in the deserts of Babylon and Assyria, counting the stars, juggling mercy and justice. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Christmas is the revolution of revolutions. To hide it behind paganism, to hide it behind indifference and busyness, to express it behind sentences alone, would be a robbery. I would be lying to my children. I can’t hold it in—“We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done.”
And Mary sings: “And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” More Christmas words, Mary. But these words have not been commanded. Your Christmas celebration isn’t sanctioned from on high. Whatever is not commanded is forbidden. How dare you speak out like this? Will worship. You have fallen headlong into the sin of Esther—“establish among them that they should celebrate . . . . as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor.” Hold it in, Mary. Buck up. Christmas thoughts are offensive.
And with the coming of Emmanuel, “old things have passed away; behold all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:18). In the Incarnation we see that “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Light overflows, overpowers, and blinds, like its creator. The Triune is the God of excess, the God who gives all, the light that chases away darkness. The Son gives all for the Father and Spirit; the Father gives Himself over to the Spirit and Son; the Spirit returns more sacrifice and love back to the Father and Son. The coming of the Son is the express image of God bursting the old world. He tabernacled among us, and “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the LORD; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” David faints and cries at the excess he saw. He would have burst to see his Son.
The Incarnation’s excess brittles my sentences as I stand before the kids, wondering how to explain it. The words come out rickety, gap toothed. I can read and read to them but that’s never enough. Maybe I could set the whole house on fire in a searing white light with the darkest winter background, just a bit of star in the dining room, melt the neighborhood. That might come close. Instead I climb the ladder up the side of my house with my stupid little clinking lights; I loop and hang and wrap and pile them around as best I can. The electricity wheezes in the house, and the lights can be seen from two miles away; I tested. But I can’t stop; they’re never enough. It’s not fair. He gets to use glowing jellyfish and Texas lightning and Alpha Centauri, and I can only hang these pathetic glowing strings.
But Christmas insists. And so here in the north, during the darkest days of winter and death, this small town’s Christmas lights conspire together against the black night and start to reclaim reality. “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. . . . That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Slowly, slowly, Christ’s coming has been transforming the whole world, turning darkness to light, tribes to communities, wilds to gardens, cannibalism to cuisine, philosophers to poets. “Since the Savior’s advent in our midst, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be. Similarly, not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer make any progress, but that which used to be is disappearing. . . . On the other hand, while idolatry and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, the Savior’s teaching is increasing everywhere”— Athanasius. No Pelagian Santa lies to kids there.
This new world suggests the oldest. It moves toward a mature Eden, the City of Eden, full of fruit trees. And so we plant trees full of “fruit,” mirrored balls staring back at our living rooms. We do this, too, in the middle of winter. These Christmas trees bring Eden back in the middle of the darkness. Fruit amidst death. My eyes roll to hear of pagan origins. Why do they stop arbitrarily at that point? Trees of life and knowledge were central to Eden. Sure pagans slunk off with edenic symbols and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, but that is their sin, not ours. They may not claim the trees. They belong to Jehovah. These pagans also prayed, yet we do not abandon prayer. The Bible begins and ends with trees. Christmas makes us look backward and forward.
And, yet, the newness of the Incarnation doesn’t stop with lights and trees. The whole creation has been made new. Christmas is the beginning of the New Heavens and Earth, and this bursts out in gifts—new clothes, new tools, new games, new books—a new world. Boxes are wrapped to separate them from objects of monetary exchange, objects of equal trade. Instead, gifts are excesses, surprises of grace. And if the Lord blesses and your tree is gloriously surrounded with boxes on top of boxes of this new order of stuff, you can stoop down from across the room, level with all those boxes and see that they resemble a city skyline, a new city, “the great city, the holy Jerusalem” — “the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones” where the nations “bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.” And in the middle of this city is “the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Your Christmas tree.
And Mary sings: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” She bursts forth still? Celebrating Christmas will lead to consumerism, Babylonianism, apostasy, and stockings. The gospel is about law and stinginess. Let the women be kept silent; for they are not permitted to speak. Who allowed this Mary to preach Christmas?
Still something was wrong. It all went by so quickly. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, done. The traditional church calendar helps express the largess of Christmas by the Advent season. This is a start. But I wanted to express a tinge of exile, a hint of that Old Covenant tension. Time needed to be stretched out. I could yak-yak-yak about the apparent tension between God’s justice and mercy, and for several years that’s what I did. But I wanted to show the tension—even through a glass darkly. I needed hints of Babylonian exile, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel.” Ezekiel saw and heard the bones in the desert—“Son of man, can these bones live? . . . Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! . . . Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. . . . [T]here was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. . . . They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ “Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live.’”
Rattling bones, desert sand, sour wine. And so for more than a week before Christmas, we sing and read through the covenantal promises—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, psalms, the prophets, Mary—always highlighting the wrestling of justice and mercy, yearning for release. We keep the rhythms of the songs with the rattle of bones (thick wooden dowels), and we partake of hints of vinegar and sand, a taste of ugly exile. Empty wine glasses sit before us, teasing, and at the close of that night’s liturgy, we sneak the tiniest bit of chocolate, a hint of Christmas to come. By Christmas Eve we are sick of sand and vinegar; we need freedom from the bones; the city grows around the tree; something more surely must burst forth; “O Come, O come, Emmanuel.” Please. We worship with the saints on Christmas Eve, and the presents burst open Christmas morning. The new world runs forth. At the final set of readings, we shift from “O Come” to “Joy to the World.” The sand and the vinegar vanish; the bones are replaced with bells; champagne and gourmet chocolates flow. “Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!” Cry out and shout. Who can hold in Christmas? It’s impossible. I’m sure others can do better, but I’m forced to show something, my best shot.
And Mary sings, “He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” Turn away from such druidic folly, Mary. Pass the day like any other. God wants you to hold it in and ignore the Incarnation. Cross your knees. God treasures silence more than shouting.
We enjoy the lights and sand and vinegar and chocolate and bones and presents and tree and more, using bits of His creation to try and show His wonder. Of course, “better is a little with the fear of the LORD, than great treasure with trouble. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred.” The greatest of these is love. But He’s the one who makes this love want to burst forth from within. It’s His fault, the God He gave us. He couldn’t even hold it in either. Sure, He speaks words through Mary, but when the time comes, He doesn’t hold back. He decorates the sky with brightness and cheats where no lighted house can hope to compete: “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” Unbelievable one-upmanship. A sky that would make the greatest fireworks grand finale look like an electric short.
Christmas can’t be done, but it bursts out. And when Christmas days have just passed, more reality strikes. The Incarnation was just the beginning. Christmas would be nothing without Easter. And Easter would be nothing without Pentecost. So little time, so much impossibility.