Your Christmas Sign
A few days from now we will be evaluating our Christmas celebrations. Many will feel that Christmas was complete because everyone liked their gifts, all the meals were satisfying, and the church services were beautiful. But for me, Christmas isn’t Christmas unless I experience a pleasant moment of divine dissonance. It happens when I least expect it. But, in retrospect, I find that I am somehow wonderfully prepared.
For instance, a few years ago in a Sunday School Christmas program, midway through the first act, the lead shepherd walked up to the lead angel (his sister), and “got in her face.” For less than a minute (which felt like ten to mom), there was a heated conversation between the two that abandoned the storyline but followed a script they had rehearsed earlier at home. It was a celestial showdown at the Christmas Corral. The wings didn’t come off, and the shepherd’s staff didn’t become a sword, but I was “sore afraid” that the manger would be toppled. After the program, their good-natured mother told me the argument was about who was supposed to say “peace on earth to all people.” “Ah,” I thought, “I had seen the sign that this was indeed Christmas.”
Alongside our holiday celebrations, there is a radical side to the message of Christmas. God took on our flesh. In the midst of our spats, our misunderstandings, rivalries, and stubbornness, Jesus was born. “God with us” means God among us, just as we are. God took on our character and spoke the lines we cannot get ourselves to believe: “Peace be with you.” The child grew to tragically fulfill the role we were never able to play: a human being in perfect union with God. God did not come into our world by lightly brushing up against us. As one Confession states, Jesus came, “born in time, completely God, completely human.”
The Gospel story of Jesus’ birth includes colorful detail, like angels announcing the birth of a king to shepherds. Shepherds were looked down upon in society. Shepherds never dressed up as cute Sunday School children. They were more likely to be spotted in the detention hall or the principal’s office. Today, if we still thought of shepherds the way they did in Jesus’ day, there would be a Shepherd Locator Website where you could plug in your address to see how many shepherds lived in your neighborhood.
One scholar suggests that if real shepherds ever encountered angels, they would expect a message of judgment or at least a guilt trip (“You’re still a shepherd? I hear they’re accepting applications at carpentry school.”) A shepherd would certainly not expect to be invited to the home of a newborn king. And yet we find angels and shepherds conversing with grace. We find angels telling the shepherds that there would be a sign for them: “You will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Peasant shepherds wrapped their babies in cloths and laid them in mangers. Kenneth Bailey says that this would have been a personalized sign for them: “That is, they would find the Christ child in an ordinary peasant home such as theirs.” Suddenly, their disheveled souls found hope.
There is a Christmas sign for you, one tailored to your life, one that says, “You will find the child wrapped in the garments of your life, living in the same sort of home you do.” You will recognize that sign, for you know the details of your own life: your doubts, your struggles, your victories, and your dreams. It is within your own life that God will speak to you about the love and the new life that he has in store for you. That sign will come when you least expect it; yet you, too, will be wonderfully prepared. It is a sign you must “go and see.” You can do this by reading the gospels or by attending a church service. But you must go yourself. And Christmas won’t be complete until you do.
Chris DeVos is the Manager of Church Partnerships and Care at The Colossian Forum.