Editor’s note: Originally posted on Christmas Eve, 2004.
This is a time of year when I don’t envy the position of members of the cloth.
Such men and women find themselves in the position of having to write a sermon on essentially the same message every year while making that message sound fresh. It’s not an easy thing to do. That’s why, for the last couple of years at Christmastime, I have simply re-posted “A Bithead’s Christmas”. It’s not laziness that drives that but an inability to come up with a fresh angle every year ; when I have an idea firmly in my mind I can explore and goals of that idea until I’m blue in the face and red in the fingers, and my keyboard is suffering under the strain. But often, the fresh ideas simply don’t come.
There’s this too. I have gotten more e-mail in the past six weeks requesting that article be reposted, than any of the many thousand other articles I’ve ever placed on this web site. It’s obvious that what I wrote in that article struck some serious chords, in the readership of this website, and on the web at large, since the vast majority of people reading the article are apparently coming in from Google, looking specifically for it. I am amazed.
Perhaps it’s better that way.
Sometimes the expression of an idea comes out perfectly, and explains it well, no matter how many times it’s repeated. The Christmas story, the Christmas promise, is most certainly one of these. It is precisely as I said last week in this space; Christmas, and thereby, Christianity itself, has been going on for a little over 2000 years, in spite of all the naysayers, protesters and government regulations that history has managed to toss up in those 2000- plus years. It does so, because at the core of it all, is a message that all the naysayers, Protesters and government hacks will never understand, much less conquer. It is a message that will survive the ravages of time, government, and liberals, facists, and anything else long after you and I are no longer even a memory in this world.
The Christmas message, you see, is eternal, and ever green.
(Evergreen. I am suddenly struck with the symbolism here)
There is something of a journalistic precedent for this as well. . I do not pretend to hold myself quite so high in the world has these media outlets, but I’d like for you to consider two examples from some well-regarded media outlets; Papers from around the country this day will be Printing “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. A Wall Street Journal has for years posted the same editorial every Thanksgiving for the last 47 years, and if I’m not mistaken they perform similarly on New Year’s Day as well.
So with all this in mind I will offer once again this year:
A Bithead’s Christmas
I find myself wanting to take more seriously, the challenge of writing to the subject of Christmas, today, than I have in years past. It’s not clear in my mind as to why, but this isn’t unusual… I never really do have a firm grip on why I want to attack a subject in these spaces. In fact, the writing of a coulmn for me has becomes more an effort of exploring a subject; the codification of random thoughts. The act of putting those thoughts into words on a screen allows me to think about, and RE-think about the subject at hand. My thoughts on a given subject often do not fully take shape until such time as I’ve re-written them twice. Often, indeed… usually, the ideas are already there, waiting to be cast into words, but not fully defined until the act of sitting down and typing them out. I suppose this subject is no exception.
To this effort, some blogs, this time of year will quote the great Gospels of Christ’s arrival, and expound on that. And that’s worthy, and right. Some others will take the secular angle of the holiday and go off on that. That too, is fine, though frankly it’s always for me missed the core of the topic, a little.
But not me, for either of those tacks. Not this year. I’m going to go off the beaten path, for this post, at least in context of this blog, given it’s Christmas, and off the beaten path in terms of the Liturgical calendar, given it’s me. I’m going to stick with the meaning of Christmas, but to point it up, I’m going to turn to something a little later… about 30 years later… for my subject. I trust you’ll see why when I’m done.
This story is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We’ll use Luke’s version for the purpose.
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Now, all three versions add a little something to the story, and I suggest you read them yourself to get it all. Most times that Christians hear this text or read it, a child is being baptized. The apparently intended thrust of reading it in those situations is to make a loose connection with the Children being accepted by Christ. And, that’s a valid angle for the story.
But, think about the story line, here, so you can get the flavor of what I’m going to describe to you. There’s a far bigger angle that many miss.
Christ has been playing “superstar” for a while, now. He’s been attracting flat out huge crowds wherever he goes. The disciples are starting to become concerned for the (human) well being of Christ. Children are, then as now, a source of some stress to adults already under stress, so the disciples decide, wordlessly to give the Lord a break. But Jesus says.. “Hey… No.. Let ’em come… It’s OK. ” Apparently, seeing some remaining resistance in their eyes, he reinforces the command with a statement that must have shaken them badly. “It’s to the likes of these as belongs the Kingdom of God.”
Now, It’s not hard for us to imagine what’s going on in the minds of the disciples…. They must have felt a little put back… While not saying so, they must have figured they had an inside track to Heaven. (Shrug) It’s human nature.
The passages don’t record if they said anything, but you just know what they’re thinking, here… “Comon, Jesus… We’re tryin’ to give you a break here! And you elevate these lowest of low, mere children, into the ownership of heaven? You raise a polite nothing to a path to heaven and eternity? What’s THAT about?”
And you know, Jesus knows it too. He knows full well what they’re thinking, because watch what he comes back with: “I’ll tell you the truth;”, he says, “Unless you change… Unless you transform, and accept the kingdom of heaven like a child, you’ll never enter it.”
But what does he mean, here? He’s talking, I’m afraid, about how you lose touch with happiness and the sense of wonder, as you become an adult. That loss prevents us from seeing the Kingdom of heaven as it is.
For most of us, the happiest times of our lives was when we were children. When we’re younger, we have less in the way of cares, and troubles. Let’s admit, too, that as we get older, we become aware of, and allow more and more sadness into our lives.
It’s true; It’s a hard world out there, and being adults we’ve come to understand this, in a way of understanding that only long exposure and experience… and lots of scar tissue, can bring.
It seems that every year we have more worries and concerns.
Oh, yeah, do we EVER worry. We worry about our health, and those concerns increase with advancing age. We worry about our jobs, about our investments, our savings, about the future in general. Retirement is a concern. Will we have enough? We’re too fat, we’re too skinny. We’re too tall, we’re too short, our once wavy hair is still waving… Only, it’s waving bye-bye. We worry about the future our kids will have and the normal growing up problems, but we also worry about the future that we’ve left our kids. We look at the news, and we wonder what kind of a world have we left them? We even worry if we worry too much.
We’ve seen marriages and relationships we thought would pass the test of time, pass away, instead. Things we had hoped would come to pass, didn’t, and those we’d not dreamed, in our wildest nightmares would happen, did. We see loved ones die. Jobs disappear. Hearts get broken.
And friends, those are just the hum-drum… The everyday worries that every generation has had, since Cain bopped his brother’s bean with a rock. Then you get into the problems particular to us and our times; AIDS, oil shortages, cancer, drugs, the way our own technology seems to be spiraling out of our control… And Islamofacists. Ah, yes, there’s nothing at all, to my mind, like the specter of 3000 plus people dying on national television, in Washington, NY and Pennsyvania… while we watch, to remind us that we’re not in control.
And yes…. it’s all about control, if you think on it for long. All these things I’ve listed are worries about things we cannot control, try as we might.
The list of these reverses, these scars, gets longer as the years progress, and it starts eventually, to break down the positive outlook in every one of us… Each according to their ability to resist. Each step, each worry, each bit of emotional scar tissue, if you will, moves us farther away from the relative joy of our comparatively carefree childhood.
By now the sharper among you will notice where I’m going with this; This is where Christmas comes in. This is why Christmas holds a special place in our hearts, and our traditions.
You see, even for the not-so-religious, it is a time of renewal of our fragile human spirit. All of the hurts, small and large, become less pronounced, and fade under the soft glow of the lights, the candles, the fireplace, and the smile of the children.
Have you ever noticed that it’s the children, in fact, that do us the most healing? Christmas, it’s said, is for the children. Presidential speechwriter and WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan noted recently about some of the qualities of children:
“They are susceptible to wonder. A child can look at a red toy car in the red-green glow of Christmas tree lights and imagine an entire lifetime. A child can play with a new doll and smell good things being cooked and hear sweet music and it can make that child imagine that life is good, which gives her a template for good, a category for good; it helps her know good exists. This knowledge comes in handy in life; those who do not receive it, one way or another, are sadder than those who do.”
Of course, we move away from that ability as we grow older. Our long experience has hardened us to the realities of the world around us, and perhaps jaded our point of view. But here comes Christmas, which gives us, individually and collectively, the chance of looking at the world though the wonder-filled eyes of a child once again… Becoming childlike ourselves in the process, and becoming healed and renewed.
The experience is a far deeper one for those who have accepted the Christmas promise, and it’s meaning. Reacting to that promise includes allowing someone else to run the controls of our lives. Remember I said it was all about control? Well, I want you to think about the features of being a child. It was Randall Jarrell, I tihnk, who once quipped:
“One of the most obvious facts about grownups to a child is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child.”
Well, let’s remember.
You’re NOT in control of much of anything. Someone who knows better, and is by far more powerful than we, is running things. And looking back, I’m sure most of us would conclude that having that situation back would be of comfort to us. Haven’t we all wished to resign from the world of adulthood at times?
I guess this would be a good place to slip in a parallel story. Consider the fictional person of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Think about how the story develops; He’s had some serious emotional setbacks in early life… and those have become a self-feeding, never ending circle by the time we meet him, 7 years after his best friend’s death.
All these setbacks have made him cold, and hard, and for all outward appearances, non-feeling. He’s covered with emotional scar tissue. Being hard, is his way of dealing with what he cannot control.
Only after his overnight experience do all these cares get swept away, along with his anger of not being able to control his situation…. The realization comes to him that he never really WAS in control in the first place, so stop fretting about it all… Think about what are essentially the first words out of his mouth as he realizes that the weight of his worries.. Not unlike worries you and I have had, are gone; “I’m as light as a feather….” The weight of that scar tissue… And all the concerns they represent having been lifted off his shoulders…
“…and as giddy as a Schoolboy!”
Like a child.
“I’ll tell you the truth”, he said, “Unless you change.. Unless you transform, and accept the kingdom of heaven like a child, you’ll never enter it.”
Amazing parallels, aren’t they? I’m reliably informed that Charles Dickens was not as a rule what one would call very religious. Yet, in looking at the parallels in these two story lines, I must wonder in all honesty if he didn’t have some help with “A Christmas Carol”.
Now, you’ll notice I took some liberty with the way the Biblical text was quoted. Some liberty, I say, but not very much, really, since it’s long been pointed out by Bible scholars that the word that earlier versions of the text had as ‘change’ were really translated from the ancient Greek word for “transform”. This is a major point, because it demonstrates what the first step is, and whose it is… yours.
And no, change and transformation are not the same thing. The best description I’ve ever thought of to explain the difference between the two, runs along these lines:
If I take a rock, and in the other hand I take a large hammer, and I hot the rock with the hammer, and break it, I’ve changed that rock.
If I take that same rock, and take a small hammer and chisel, and very carefully, perhaps over a period of decades, sculpt that rock into a flower, I’ve still merely changed that rock.
Transformation, on the other hand, is when the rock itself, as a matter of responding to it’s own will, becomes a flower. And of course that’s beyond the normal power of the rock, by any standard we know. What Christ therefore is saying is, that we must become children, as of a matter of our own will. Which is, as I say, impossible by any standard we know…. Which in turn leads us to the source of all things, who teaches us how, and gives us the power to do it.
You see, the externalities I mentioned, the lights, the fire, the children…and that which Dickens writes of… the giving, the being open to what joys are around us, and so on, helps toward the goal of understanding the Christmas promise, but it’s not the whole deal.
At the core of it all… (and this is a connection that, alas, many people never make…) is that the one whose birth is being celebrated every December the 25th, is the one who takes over that long list of worries.
THAT’S WHY WE CELEBRATE!!
With those worries removed, lives get changed, hearts mended, child-like perspectives restored in a way that the lights, carols and greenery can never do on their own. And the newly remade Children find that the authority and responsibility and all the ponderous weight connected with them, are taken away by the one who said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”.
Now, I must warn you; There are those who will resist being told all of this… to the point of removing such joy as they find, wherever they may find it, often using the power of governments, and force of arms to have it removed from town squares and schools, mocking, persecuting and yes, even killing those responsible for the spreading of the news of this miracle. It’s a sad truth, that a world used to darkness, you see, will continually fight to see the darkness continued.
That warning given, however, I will say to you also, that it’s no accident, Christmas being called the season of light, and that Christ is called the light of the world.
If I have one wish for this Christmas, it is that you will be open to the light…. With the wondering eyes of a child.