This year, our best shot at getting everyone together meant moving the family Christmas forward a couple days. I’ve got to say, it’s a change that I could get used to. On Christmas eve, when we’d normally be rushing to find that one last gift (or worse, that one stray ingredient), I was able to kick back with some hot chocolate, the movie Elf, and some very relaxed, contented family members.
In the evening Jessica and I sought out a midnight, candlelight service (not at ClearView). Over the years we’ve grown to love Christmas eve services, and the more traditional the better. Carols. Readings. Done.
I loved last night’s service. In part because of its focus. (When else do we give so much attention to the reading of Scripture corporately? When else do our worship-planners allow the Bible so much time in a service?) And in part because I wasn’t in charge of it. (As much as I love being a minister, I must confess that I also crave chances to worship without having to worry about what I’m about to say or how we’re doing on time.)
There was only one off-key note. The minister leading the service kept abstracting Jesus, talking about him more as a concept than as a child. He repeatedly told us that Christmas was about “God’s love coming into the world” and “God’s light shining on us.”
I noticed it early on and couldn’t help but hear it every time he did it. It was almost as if he were embarrassed by the incarnation. Perhaps he was picturing a skeptic in the audience for whom the idea of God himself taking on flesh would be too much but God’s love, light, grace, truth etc. might seem more palatable.
At Christmas, did the love of God come down? Yes. Did God’s light shine brightest? Yes? Was Jesus full of grace and truth? Absolutely. But the mystery is greater than that. The specificity is the mystery. Christmas is not about a concept being visualized. It’s about God coming near.
It’s made me think about how comfortable we are with concepts and how uncomfortable we are with a God who just shows up.
As Max Lucado puts it in his classic, God Came Near, remembering the concreteness of Jesus’ arrival is “not something we like to do; it’s uncomfortable. It is much easier to keep the humanity out of the incarnation. Clean the manure from around the manger. Wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Pretend he never snored or blew his nose or hit his thumb with a hammer.
“He’s easier to stomach that way. There is something about keeping him divine that keeps him distant, packaged, predictable.
“But don’t do it. For heaven’s sake, don’t. Let him be as human as he intended to be. Let him into the mire and muck of our world. For only if we let him in can he pull us out.”
The angels were far more eloquent, but essentially they had only one message, “Jesus is here! Deal with it.” Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi were not asked to wrap their heads around a concept. Their task was not to ponder the ramifications of a new theophany or, God forbid, debate the metaphysics of divine incarnation.
Their task was to respond to a new human being, a baby boy in Bethlehem named Jesus, delivered with the promise that now God is with us. Their confusion hardly matters: they cannot comprehend the mystery of Jesus’ coming but they cannot escape the reality of his coming either.
So I am less concerned about the meaning of Christmas than I am the birth of Jesus. Abstraction may be the greatest distraction of all, for our task is not to do with an idea or concept but with a God who just showed up.