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.

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.

The Sacrament of Remembrance

“Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me”, and his friends thought he was talking about bread.  But then, they already understood the more important part of the formula – the part that never seemed controversial until today.

Remembrance is the sacrament behind all sacraments, a mechanism by which God does for every man what he did only once, for all mankind.  Israel was led out of captivity in Egypt just once, but the event is remembered in scripture more than 100 times, over many generations.  Jesus was crucified once, but the event is remembered dozens of times throughout the New Testament. 

Remembrance is at the heart of all human experience.  We don’t leap off buildings, for example, and not merely because our previous flight ended badly.  We don’t start the barbeque with dynamite just because that experiment had not yet been attempted in our neighborhood.  We all know what will happen, even if it has never happened to us.  We participate in a network of knowledge that spans continents and centuries. 

And thus, two practices critical to humanity:  First, that we remember things we have not experienced. Second, that we hand those memories on to those who come after us. 

In our generation, both of these practices have come under attack, even inside the Church.  We question the memories handed down by our fathers, though they have been preserved in scripture through 100 generations.  We think orthodoxy a sign of weakness.  Our views of sex and ethics and even scripture have evolved to harmonize with culture.  We cull and retranslate and reinterpret, handing on what we think and not what we have been given.

Our nation is bent and perhaps broken because we have let fall the memories handed down through a mere 10 generations.  We are quick to surrender what our fathers revered, bullied by those who despise what our fathers revered.  Heroes whose images our grandfathers lifted into the sky are, in our generation, pulled down and shattered to rubble in the street.

When we choose to lay aside history or scripture, we do it in the name of progress, because we think the brightest light is still ahead.  But – as the founders of this nation knew – the brightest light is not ahead.  If we are to walk in the light, it will be light we have conserved through remembrance.  The dispute between progressives and conservatives is always so.  It’s not a question of optimism or political party.  It’s a question of where to find light.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting for a nation torn by civil war.  “We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us… we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

And we – even in the Church – are forgetting God, neglecting the sacrament of remembrance.  Our forgetting is a sacrilege, eroding our common ground and crippling those who come after.  It is a moving of the boundary stone, a theft of the light God intended for each generation.

– – –

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…”
-I Corinthians 11:23

“My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from now and forever.”
-Isaiah 59:21

“Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons.”
-Deuteronomy 4:9

The Antifa Bible

I heard a rumor that – just in time for Christmas – a noted Christian publisher will be releasing its new Antifa Study Bible.  Informed by current social themes, the gift Bible includes a flammable, tear-out section containing passages offensive to modern readers.  The remaining eight pages of scriptural quotations, handsomely bound in Corinthian leather, include several words from Jesus, the lyrics to “Imagine”, and a tribute to Moloch’s visionary nexus of fire and birth control.

The editor I reached for comment apparently misunderstood my concern.  “I know, I know,” he said, “Jesus had his racial blind spots regarding ‘Gentiles’, and bought into the misogyny of the whole Judaic tradition, but he did knock over some tables and threaten to tear down the temple.  In the end, I’d say he’s one of us.”

“B-but,” I stammered, “that’s not right!  Jesus didn’t come to ‘abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them’.” 

“Oh, I know,” he chuckled, “and we put that passage in the flammable section, of course, but one must make allowances.  I can’t very well sell a Bible with no Jesus in it, can I?”

“But why sell a Bible at all, if the historic Jesus is offensive to your audience?”

“Ah, well,” he said soothingly.  “I can see you don’t understand marketing, my boy.  The churches are full of people who are offended by the historic Jesus – or would be if they knew who he was.  But Jesus is bigger than history.  Nicer, you know.  More symbolic.  His ideals transcend those dodgy old Bible stories and hard-nosed moral platitudes.  It’s like he said, there’s ‘nothing to kill or die for’.  We’re ‘a brotherhood of man’ and all that.”

“Uh, no, that was John Lennon,” I said.

“Same difference,” he said, brightly.  “Look, people really like Jesus, so let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  We can get rid of religion but keep Jesus.  Better still, Jesus will get rid of religion for us, once we cut him loose from all that dogma, which nobody cares about anyway.”

“But he cared about it.  He said none of it should be changed.”

“Ah, well, don’t be too hard on him.  And I admit, his statues may have to come down, too, but let’s give it a year.  Long enough, at least, to get us through this election.”

“What’s the election have to do with it?”

“Those churches full of people I mentioned?  Well, lots of ‘em will be on our side if we do this right, and after that, it won’t matter.  Just remember: Jesus Is Nice.  And that can mean just about anything.”

“Even the opposite of what Jesus taught, you mean…”

“It doesn’t matter what he taught.  They’re not looking for instruction, they’re looking for comfort.”

I hung up, shaking my head and wondering if he was right or if this was all just a bad dream.

* * *

(Note: This story is fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, businesses, or products is purely coincidental.)

The Party of Fire

I have always enjoyed a quiet fire, chatting with friends, faces glowing in the flickering flame.  There is a cheerful solemnity to it, apparently, whether you burn a few logs or an entire department store.  And everything, it seems, is now fuel for the fire.

The new kind of fire is a bit unsettling until you get into the mood. Homes and cars and banks seem a bit extravagant for use as firewood.  Bibles and American flags, though more affordable, appear especially ill-suited.  One half-expects the government to take an interest, to find some poor policeman whom it has not yet defunded and send him to investigate.

But then, there is no mystery to investigate.  Everything is fuel for the fire because the fire is more important than what it consumes.  Everything is fuel for the fire because, when the businesses and Bibles and flags have settled to ember and ash, something will rise to take their place.

The real mystery is this: Who and what will rise?  Who and what, having tossed onto the flames so much that we love and honor, will build upon the ruins, and what will they honor?

It won’t be people that they honor, regardless of race, gender, or integrity.  A few months ago, Mr. Kavanaugh became fuel for the fire, and now it will be Mrs. Barrett.  Their lives, however innocent, are to be incinerated, as Clarence Thomas was incinerated before them, all for the thought-crime of respecting the Constitution.

It won’t be public safety they honor, because we can see in every police officer they abuse, every police station and emergency vehicle they destroy, every police confrontation they distort and exploit, that they regard law and order as an obstacle to their rise.

It won’t be America they honor, because they want nothing so much as to erode, distort, and finally erase our memory of those who laid the foundation for this place, and the beauty of much that has been built upon that foundation. 

That beauty and even that foundation are fuel for the fire and this year’s virus provides a preview of the new foundation, where fearful obedience is honored and reasonable precaution is mocked, where rage is blessed and peace belittled, where government spills into every corner of our lives and independence in punished.  

The fires in our cities show what we can expect from the party of fire — a party that has (astoundingly) coalesced around the death of children, the closing of our churches and businesses, the defamation of our nation, and the careless destruction of all who impede their power.   Next in their string of firecrackers, our jobs were made fuel for the fire so that our electoral system might become fuel for the fire.   I fear this might be the final blast, the fire that consumes what remains of America.

And against all this, the humble firemen.  In St. Paul’s words, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”, and we suddenly stand in urgent need of brave souls who will not only love what God loves but hate what he hates.  The evil is upon us and the fact that it hates our nation tells us much about America.  If we don’t stand now, if we don’t fight the arsonists and defend what is good, let us not speak of God’s love.