The Gift the Child Was Giving

He’s lost a lot of blood already and can hardly see.  The pain is like a drug, blurring his mind.  He staggers on, eyes closed, remembering…

“It doesn’t have to be like this!” His friend was shouting at him, angry and frightened.  “You can do what you need to do without this suffering!” 

Another scene, a softer voice: “You’re very hungry, you know. Just turn this stone into food.  It won’t hurt anyone.”

He opens his swollen eyes, glances into the roaring sea of faces.  Many are laughing at him, jeering, a few weeping.  He sees his mother, mouth open, staring in shock and agony.  He stumbles, sways beneath the heavy beam, crashes to the pavement.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

No.  It has to be like this. 

Not just this – this day he had long feared – but all of it.  The years of loneliness.  The sorrow and temptation and weakness.  The knowing that it would someday end here, rejected by his own.  Hated.  Abandoned.  Unrecognized.

It had to be like this for him to say to earth what he had decided to say, to be for earth what he had decided to be. He would be inside what he was over, the aching, dangerous highwire of human experience.  The languid, contented simplicity of a creature with a full belly.  The searing anger and frustrations of human emotion, the frailty of a human brain, the bizarre tension of a soul within a body. 

He knew what it meant to come, and still he came, and for one night, at least, the suffering was still far off.  That night, there was only joy, for unto us a child was born. 

His birth was a beginning, but also an end – the end of a chapter that began in microscopic secrecy, in the merest speck inside one young woman: in one living cell with 46 human chromosomes.  The Son of Man was knit together as any human child is knit together.  He “became flesh” or – as enlightened people in our day say – a mere “clump of cells” and was eventually born in a gush of blood and water as he would later be proved dead in a gush of blood and water.

There is no dignity here, no self-preservation, no standing apart from the humanity he created.  His condescension was not condescending. 

The wonder of Christmas is not that there is a being so majestic as God, nor that there are beings so tattered as us, but that a bridge was built between the two and in a shape no one expected – the shape of a child who is God With Us.

It was the “With” that hurt.  He might easily have become God Among Us or God Above Us.  It didn’t have to be like this… unless he had come searching, not for subjects, but for his beloved.  Unless, by his suffering and condescension, he became “the firstborn among many brothers”, a living bridge “who has been tempted in every way – just as we are”, coming “to seek and to save that which was lost”.

That we are lost seems pretty clear these days, and it was to such people as us that Christmas came.  “A people living in darkness have seen a great light”.  Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds – they knew what a gift this child was.  And we know, perhaps better than they did, what a gift this child was giving.

After he has suffered,

he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,

and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53

Christmas in the Shadows

The tree seems small this year, the lights dim, but maybe I’m asking too much.  I long for Christmas to arrive, bulldozing my fears, flooding my soul with peace, but the harder I stare, the less magic I see.  Our decorations look like so many trinkets dragged from storage boxes or picked from store shelves – a desperate incantation to console ourselves.

     The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
     On those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.

Americans have spent a year in the shadow of death and there is no end in sight.  We need Christmas — a miracle on any street, a more wonderful life, a visitation of Christmas spirits to break open our hearts, to break open the hard sky that overshadows us.

    An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
    and they were terrified, but the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news…”

After this year of isolation, I long to reenter the heart of the Christmas story, the moments of shining unity.  Sheep puzzling over bright angels and perhaps joining in their song.  Dazed shepherds crowding into a cave, staring in wonder at a baby.  Mary “treasuring up these things and pondering them in her heart”.

But there’s another side to the story.  It was a child who first recognized the Christ and “leaped within his mother’s womb”, but there are other children here, too, murdered in Herod’s blind swipe at Jesus.  There are mothers “weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more”.  And watching her son’s life unfold, a sword was to pierce Mary’s own heart, too.

    He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    A man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.

The story of Christmas is a story of earth, and so it is, in part, a sad story.  The baby did not come to be king; he was already that.  He came to become a lamb. 

    He was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was upon him
    and by his wounds we are healed.

The baby we celebrate at Christmas was not born into a fairy tale, but into a world like ours, writhing in the shadow of death.  He did not enter history as a king striding to his throne, but like a fireman running into a fire, into the thick of our fear and sorrow. 

In this year, more than any I recall, I need Christmas.  Not the decorations or tradition.  I need to crowd into the cave and stare in wonder at this child who is, as the prophet declared, “God with us”.

     For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
     and the government will be on his shoulders.
     And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
     Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

Vertical People

It’s been a complicated year in an increasingly complicated world. It’s hard to know what is true, hard to believe that our thoughts even matter. We follow the crowd because, month by month, the crowd grows stronger and, month by month, we have less power and less confidence to do anything else.

Complexity does that to us. It builds crowds because people long to be sure, and crowds can be sure of things that individuals aren’t. Crowds create their own momentum, rewarding their followers with simplicity and safety and approval. Crowds are horizontal. You don’t have to look up, you only have to look around. You only have to follow.

Just this morning I stumbled upon an old story about this. The Governor gave an order that everyone – except for one man – obeyed. Day after day, his neighbors challenged the man, but he had his reasons and “refused to comply”, even though obeying the order would do him no real harm and refusing it would put his community in danger.

Perhaps he was a nut, but he represents the alternative to crowds – what we might call the vertical option. He did not look at what other people were doing. He stood tall and very much alone, believing he was not really alone.

We don’t have much appreciation for that kind of person today, which is a funny thing considering our nation was made for such people. Vertical people stand alone, even when they stand together. They believe they have a personal connection to ultimate reality; an ability to know what is right and a responsibility to do it.

That our nation was made for vertical people and not horizontal people is the reason for the war in our culture today. We (who close churches) would never write a Constitution that – before all else – guarantees the free exercise of religion. We (who censor opinions the crowd rejects) would not guarantee freedom of speech. We (who applaud the power of the crowd) would not create an Electoral College to reduce the power of the crowd, and we (who disbelieve in a Creator) would certainly not declare citizens to be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.

The America we are is at war with the America we were. We who once said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, do not ourselves breathe free. Our freedom is increasingly measured and meted by its compliance with the crowd, revoked by rulers who claim power our Constitution forbids. We are, in an irony that will ring through history, a nation of free men and women who no longer yearn to be free.

Mordecai, the guy in the Bible who would not comply, will never be loved by the crowd, but he is an example for those who still believe we were created to stand tall and, when necessary, stand alone, though we are never truly alone.

———–

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him, but he refused to comply…When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai.

Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

-Esther 3

Our New Old Religion

So, here we are, on the eve of history, and I’m just tired. The ads never stop, and – at this late date – they never help. It’s tempting to measure the importance of the election by my dwindling enthusiasm.

But that’s the wrong measure. I was reminded of the right measure this morning while reading about a wise king. This man’s intelligence was recognized across the world; his wealth and power and accomplishments seemed unshakeable. And I suppose they were until he made one choice – which is, coincidentally, the very choice we face tomorrow.

Our nation’s wealth and power and accomplishment seem unshakeable and it’s hard to believe that one choice could sink so large a ship. It’s easier to believe there’s not so much difference between our candidates after all.

But what if there is? And what if, in our exhaustion with this angry election and this dreary year, we begin to forget the one thing we must not forget?

You won’t find his name on the ballot, but this election is about Moloch – the same Moloch whom Solomon invited into Israel. The same Moloch whose glowing hands, still smoking with the skin of the last baby, received another child for sacrifice.

America has changed and our political divisions have changed. The Democratic party has grown far more religious than the Republican party, but it has changed religions. Every single candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nomination swore unqualified support for aborting kids. Every single candidate also voted against (or, in Biden’s case, publicly opposed) the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act of 2020, demonstrating their support for killing kids even after they are born. The Democrats have grown increasingly religious, and it is the religion of Moloch.

The destruction of kids, the rejection of the masculine and the feminine, the normalization of homosexuality – these are not the relaxing of national standards from an earlier Christian consensus. These are sacraments in a new religion that is trying to push Christianity from the public square.

Unlike Solomon, I hope we do not forget. I hope we remember the God who formed us in our mothers’ wombs and preserved our nation these many years. I pray that we push back.