The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A few months ago, my next-door neighbor told me that the house down the street is haunted. She used to own the place and claims she saw the spirit who inhabits it more than once. She says that it is the ghost of a little boy from the early 1900s, with bobbed hair and knickers, who occasionally appears in the kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of her claim, but I do believe that many of us are haunted. Especially at this time of year. Not by literal ghosts but by memories. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visited by the flickering memories of Christmases that are now gone.

Scrooge’s visit was a kind of reality check, but ours is something else. Ours is a reconstruction. We sort through the fragments of past experience scene by scene, the way an archaeologist sifts through the debris of an ancient civilization. Instead of bits of pottery, we handle shards of memory. Some are broken and fragmentary. These recollections are tinted by the soft glow of nostalgia, a spice that is sweet as powdered sugar but can leave a bitter aftertaste. The recollection of others is more spectral in form. They are haunted in the classic sense, as they contemplate the remains of things that have gone to ruin. The memory of someone whose space is empty casts a shadow on the table. The memory of a past offense or some horror puts a nightmare cast on their recollection.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was: “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. They aim to disturb. Those memories that trade in nostalgia want to make us jealous. They show us shadows of things that never were and leave us longing for a world we never knew. Those whose trade is fear want to bring us to despair. They show us a world of sin but one without a savior. The pain they bring to mind is real, but it is not the whole story. Hidden from those haunted memories is the hand of God moving in the shadows.

When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was. “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. 

We prefer our holiday season to be serene and magical. We are hoping for a moment of transcendence. We deck the halls and trim the tree. We bake and buy and then settle back to wait. But all too often, our experience is the opposite. Instead of Christmas magic, we get the critical mother-in-law who thinks their child could have done better. The kids like their toys but only for a day or two. The dysfunction that has stalked the family for the previous eleven months refuses to take a vacation. Somebody we love gets sick. Another dies. Or we discover that the real spoiler is our own heart, which leads us on as the day approaches, and then suddenly turns a cold shoulder after it finally arrives.

Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon (perhaps it is already too late), let me say that I have been a devotee of Christmas for as long as I can remember. Christmas has captivated me since childhood. I can feel its approach as soon as the winds turn to chill in the fall. I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1 and it is only with effort that I manage to restrain myself from starting earlier. I smile every time I watch Scrooge’s gleeful repentance on Christmas morning and weep when George Bailey learns that no man is a failure who has friends. But I must tell you that Christmas has let me down every time. By the time the 26th arrives, I am done. The tree and all its decorations can go back to their place. They seem awkward and out of place to me, as wizened and worn out as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

I won’t deny that there are moments of transcendence during the holiday season: The peal of the trumpet during the resurrection sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The sight of wind driven clouds flying across the moon at night. The constellation glitter of the snow as it falls. But these are only momentary stabs of joy. These sensations, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, disappear as soon as we become aware of them and cannot be manufactured. Play the same song. Visit the same spot. Try to reproduce the circumstances exactly, and you will only be disappointed. But this is, I think, what we are often trying to do during the Christmas season. We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.

Unfortunately, the fallen world conspires against us. If it is not the harsh croak of misfortune that bursts in and interrupts our revels, it is misfortune’s plainer sister boredom. We go looking for the sublime only to find the usual. The enchanted world we hoped to create for ourselves proves to be a tangle of colored lights and a pasteboard tableau of the three kings with a camel. The choir is singing off-key, but it really wouldn’t matter if they weren’t, because we hate the song anyway.

Yet we may have more in common with the true Christmas experience than we realize. After all, Jesus didn’t descend from heaven in a cloud of glory. He came into the world by water and blood, as all infants do. There were signs and wonders that marked His birth. But there was also misunderstanding, jealousy, and terror. Joseph considered divorcing Mary. Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem that were two years old or younger. The Holy Family fled for their lives and relocated to Egypt for a time. The version of these events that we see on our Christmas cards or in our imagination is a sanitized one. There is no hard traveling, no fear, and no violence. Our version is a kind of fairy tale, the sort we might read to our children at night to lull them to sleep.

What I am trying to say is that the world Jesus entered was far more like the world we know than the one we fantasize about, whether those fantasies are good or bad. When the Apostle John describes Christ’s entrance into the drama of redemption in Revelation 12, we see a very different portrait. Admittedly, John’s narrative is oblique and far-reaching. He speaks in visions and goes beyond the nativity stories of the Gospels. Yet John’s wild images make clear what the Gospels’  more narrow and literal depictions confirm. The world that the Son of God entered, when He took human form and was born in Bethlehem, was not a tranquil one. Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels. He entered a world of blood and tears. Jesus came to a habitation of dragons (Revelation 12:4). The angels who announced His arrival were not plump cheeked cherubs or fragile seraphs with gossamer wings. They were an armed troop who announced the arrival of the Lord of Heaven with a shout of victory.

Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. Remembrance is a sacred discipline in the Christian faith. When Jesus handed the disciples the bread and the cup, He told them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. But I think we should approach our memories, especially at this time of year, with a degree of skepticism. Enjoy the vision, but don’t try to recreate it. Appreciate the memory the way you would a passing fragrance and then let it dissolve into mist the way that all dreams do.

The same is true of those memories that terrify us. They appear suddenly, like Lazarus from the tomb, still wrapped in their grave-clothes. But unlike Lazarus, they carry the smell of the grave and the clench of fear. They rear up like a shadow cast upon the wall by a guttering candle and want us to believe that they still have the power to threaten us. But they are only ghosts and echoes.

Despite our expectations, Jesus did not come into this world to create a magical Christmas season. His sights were set on the cross. The ghosts in Dickens’ tale came to help Scrooge understand his past, but Jesus came to purchase our redemption. To do this, He not only entered into our suffering; Jesus took our sin upon Himself. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” Galatians 4:4–5, says, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

“Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?” the old carol asks. He is the Ancient of Days, the God of the Past. He is the God of your past. This is the God who made the light and who seeks you out in dark places. He is the God who knows your dreams and meets you in your disappointments. But more than this, He is the God who saves. “’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story! ’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!’ At His feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, crown Him Lord of all!”

Joseph’s Dream

Joseph was awake, just as he had been every night since Mary told him the news. He shook his head at the recollection, just as he had every time he thought about it. Mary was pregnant. He thought he knew her. He was sure he knew her. How could he have been so wrong?

Joseph considered getting out of bed and trying to work but it was late. The noise would surely wake the neighbors. Besides, he couldn’t concentrate. He had tried all day, only to realize that he was staring and shaking his head. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Joseph was grateful for the distraction. But in a moment it all came rushing back. Mary came back to Nazareth after visiting relatives in the hill country of Judah for three months. The trip had been sudden, without explanation. Joseph hadn’t thought much about it at the time. Perhaps Mary had gone to see her cousin Elizabeth for advice about marriage.

When Mary returned, she was a different woman. She went away a virgin and came home pregnant. Of course, Joseph refused to accept it when he was told. How could he do otherwise? But Mary insisted. She did not blush. “An angel appeared to me,” she explained with a smile. Joseph could tell that she expected him to believe her explanation. “The angel told me that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and the power of the Most High would overshadow me,” she said. “And he did! The child I am carrying is the son of God!”

Joseph shook his head again at the memory. It wasn’t possible. How could it be? He was sure there was some other explanation. A drunken Roman soldier who overpowered Mary and took advantage of her on the road, perhaps. Maybe Mary had concocted this unbelievable story out of fear that Joseph would call off their betrothal. The pregnancy could not have been voluntary. Mary had been forced. He was sure of it. She must have been! The story she told seemed like something only a lunatic would say. 

Joseph had said nothing to her at the time. He was afraid to. He simply turned on his heel and walked out the door. He spent the rest of the day working furiously. As if work could somehow make everything go away. He desperately wanted things to go back to the way they were before Mary’s trip. But things would never be the same between them again. How could they? People in the village were beginning to talk. There were awkward questions from some of his customers. Mary was starting to show.

The dog barked again. Then it yelped. Maybe some sleeping householder had thrown a rock to frighten it away, Joseph thought. The thought made him uncomfortable. He was a man of faith. He knew what the Rabbi would say. Joseph would have to divorce Mary. He also knew what kind of punishment the Law of Moses prescribed for Mary’s situation. Unless she could prove that the thing had happened against her will, Mary could be liable to the death penalty. A public divorce would lead to a trial and if Mary persisted with this ridiculous story of hers a public trial was likely to lead to death by stoning.

People would say that it served her right. He supposed that he should be angry. Maybe even pleased that such a fate awaited her. But he only felt helpless. He did not want to see Mary disgraced publically. He did not want her to die. So Joseph made his decision. He would divorce Mary. But quietly. There would be no trial. No public disgrace. He didn’t know how the two of them could continue to live in the same village. Maybe he would move. He would think about that later. 

The decision made, Joseph lay in the dark as sleep finally overtook him. For the first time since he had heard the news, he felt calm. A night breeze stole in through the window, carrying with it the scent from a vagrant patch of daffodils which had sprung up nearby. Only then did Joseph notice the figure standing at the foot of his bed.

Joseph sensed more than saw him. It was shadow upon shadow. Joseph felt his presence but could not make out his face or form. Joseph tried to move but it was as if all his limbs were paralyzed. He tried to speak. But could not make a sound. Was someone there or not? Then the figure spoke. His voice was reassuring as if he had overheard Joseph’s tortured deliberation. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” he said. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All the arguments Joseph had already marshaled against such an explanation rose up within him. He would have interrupted if he could speak. But he was still frozen in place. Unable to move. Unable to utter a sound.

As though the angel heard Joseph’s unspoken objection, he said, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” His tone was patient but firm. The kind one might use when explaining some simple fact to a child. The sort that a teacher uses to remind a student of something they should already know. At the mention of the child’s name, Joseph understood. The child that is to be born will be called “God with us.” Suddenly it all seemed so clear to him. And so obvious. Why hadn’t he seen it before? 

At once Joseph was awake and alert. His heart felt light, like one who has awakened after a long illness and for the first time in weeks is feeling whole. Joseph leaped from his bed and dressed in haste, the first rose light of dawn just beginning to glimmer on the horizon. His plan had been to go to the Rabbi at first light. But instead, he flew down the path in the opposite direction. Towards Mary’s house. His steps set the dog to barking again. He could hear someone calling out Mary’s name over and over. Joseph laughed when he recognized the voice as his own.

Once Upon a Time

Picture of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.

Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.

C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.

It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”

Silent Night

star1

Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront.  It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.

Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”

I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of  “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.

I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight:

To thee, meek Majesty! soft King

Of simple graces and sweet loves,

Each of us his lamb will bring,

Each his pair of silver doves;

Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes,

Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.

Still Wonderful

nativity3A popular song calls Christmas the most “wonderful” time of the year. But some pastors might be tempted to use a different word to describe the season. Christmas is to churches what Black Friday is to retailers. It is the busiest time of the year, when attendance reaches its peak. Church’s Christmas services are viewed as the most important of the year. Pastors feel pressured to exceed last year’s numbers and to tell the familiar story in a way that is bigger and better.

Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling exhausted, depressed, and cynical. Attendance may reach a high point at Christmas, but when January comes it dips again. The visitors who showed up at Christmas will not reappear until next December. The heady excitement generated by families coming together at church is mixed with a dash of melancholy for many pastors who serve at a distance from their own extended family. Consequently, we go about our business grumbling like Scrooge, reciting Paul’s warning in Galatians 4:10 about observing special days, and reminding people that Christmas wasn’t actually celebrated by the church until the fourth century. Humbug!

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Jesus’ affectionate reproof to Martha in Luke 10:42: “Only one thing is needed!” The wonder is not in the day or in the season but in the birth that they commemorate. We do not need another extravaganza. We do not need to tell the old story in a new way. There is enough wonder in the story of Christ’s first advent to last for eternity. Perhaps we have grown jaded because we have co-opted the story for our own purposes and turned it into a marketing tool. We have allowed our voice (and our interests) to drown out the song of the angels. This Christmas, do not be afraid to say it simply and to say it again: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.