I have come to appreciate when the retail-driven Christmas draws to a close and the more ancient celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas begins.
Our cultural routines are lately predictable: on December 26 the easy listening channels stop broadcasting 24-hour Christmas music, Valentine candy replaces Christmas candy in the grocery and drugstores, and folks post pictures of their packed-up ornaments and tossed-out trees on social media and everyone — including a lot of Christians — simply “move on,” as we say.
You say “Merry Christmas” on December 27 or January 3 and for some folks it just does not compute. I get it. And I do not wish to judge this way of keeping Christmas.
Below the tinsel and lights and shopping malls and parades, there is a genuine longing to connect to the deep hope offered by the real Christmas.
And this anonymous desire for Christ, these pursuits of joy in disquise, indicate that many still understand that something authentic needs to be celebrated even if they cannot name the hope and peace and love they long for, and Christians need to rejoice that this is so.
But when the rest of the world — and too many of my brothers and sisters in Christ — moves on, when the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas frenzy comes to that abrupt close on December 26, then the church can get down to the authentic work of worship, of communion, of contemplating the unfathomable mystery that God has become human so that humanity might participate in the divine life.
This year as in others, on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, I offer a short meditation on this great mystery, usually with a work of art in an attempt to draw us into contemplative participation in the reality of the Incarnation.
An angelic messenger. A conception. A visitation. A prophecy. A census. A journey. No place to shelter the virgin. A cave. Oxen. Sheep. Shepherds. More angels. A birth. The profound humility of God in coming among us as a helpless, silent baby in obscurity and poverty, amid shit and straw. A woman clothed with the sun. A child with an iron scepter to rule the nations. A dragon. A cosmic, unequal battle between Light and darkness. Three maji. Herod. Warnings in dreams. A slaughter of innocents. The flight of a refugee family from political terror.
Christmas is an endless story with innumerable chapters and yet an earth-bound event of blood, sweat, labor, dirt, and breath — of struggle with evil and glory in the highest — that changes everything in the cosmos, changes all times and spaces.
G.K. Chesterton understood a hundred years ago that we humans want to distract ourselves by ornamentation and sentimentality and kitsch from a life-converting, dramatic encounter with the deeper meaning of the Incarnation, from a meaningful encounter with Christmas, one that requires everything about us to change.
And part of the great rush to busyness and distraction is precisely that the real Christmas imposes serious challenges.
The real Christmas asks humanity to at last comprehend what manner of God made the world instead of projecting false gods and making idols of envy, anger, vindictiveness, and hate that look all-too-familiar and that are anything but transcendent.
The real Christmas invites humanity to understand what it means to be human: that we are not human until we become human as God is human.
And real Christmas answers both challenges with a person, with a Son, Jesus Christ, in whom the world encounters its genuine God and — for the first time — an authentic humanity.
The real Christmas challenges our politics. It says that all self-seeking rule — the tired struggle for domination of others — is at an end.
The real Christmas tells us that genuine authority and power is others-directed and self-sacrificial; that the real king does not seek his own, does not keep a record of wrongs, is not jealous or envious, or boastful or coercive, but patient and kind and gentle and long suffering.
The real Christmas names Love as the essence of the Creator and tells us that this God has become human, become flesh, forever in Jesus of Nazareth.
The real Christmas indicts our economics, our national identities, our international borders, our ethnic and family narratives, our sense that our tribe and way is the best, and says there is now no distinction between rich or poor, young or old, male or female, Jew or Greek.
The real Christmas announces a new kingdom where everyone is welcome and cherished by the Father as co-heirs of an everlasting rule of love governed by a profound humility beyond description that chooses to reveal itself to the cosmos it loves in unimaginable, surprising weakness.
The real Christmas judges our violence and announces the arrival of a king who is not a warrior god but a peacemaker. Swords are beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and humanity gets back to creation care and koinonia, our true vocations.
The real Christmas is about God becoming flesh so that humanity can participate in the divine life. God becomes part of the human story, so that we might become part of the divine story. He shares in our blood so that we might share in his.
The real Christmas welcomes us to leave our distraction, our endless activity, and enter its profound mystery, to slow down and approach in utter awe this great Love lying in the feed box, so that like Mary and Joseph we cease being mere spectators and *enter* this world-converting moment by contemplation, by meditation on this new way of being human that participates without disruption in the divine life on the pattern of Jesus Christ.
Real Christmas challenges us to get down to living this new humanity *now* for the life of the world, for the life of *this* world, on the pattern of our helpless infant God.
And so we mark time by the Word made flesh and this reorients humanity to the time our human God shares with us; this sacred keeping of time helps us live our days on the pattern of his great humility.
May we remember that it’s always Christmas now that God is human.