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.

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