The sweetness of Christmas is among the casualties of these
fraught and frantic times, with war looming and economic anxieties prancing
about, more clamorous than reindeer on the rooftop. Could we finally be
Many of us -- you can tell us by our wispy hair -- grew up
happily amid the sweet sounds and aromas of Christmas. These we took for
granted: sweet Mary; sweet, precious baby ("No crying he makes"); sweet
shepherds gazing in sweet adoration; sweet singing in the choir; sweet
smells from the kitchen; sweet Christmas goodnights and awakenings.
This is all very well. It is a part of why so many of the
areligious and even anti-religious take improbably to the observance of
Christ's birth. It is all very well, except ... except that Christmas is not
inherently about sweetness. It is about things harsher and harder, many of
them much more a part of daily life than sweet, soft hands sweetly arranging
The Christ child -- who happened to be, as the Gospels and the
Creeds remind us, the incarnate Son of God -- must have looked immensely
sweet in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. There was much more to the
matter, even so. What on Earth was he doing on Earth, God in human form?
Presenting himself for redemptive purposes, that was what.
Oh? Something was the matter? Why, yes -- quite a few
somethings, such as murder, fornication, idolatory, lust, robbery, the run
of human accomplishments, bunched together and given the unappealing name of
This was damaging stuff, demanding special intervention. Which
was exactly what, as the good old King James Version would have it, came to
pass: intervention of a hugely special, never-to-be-repeated character. The
Son of God was born in order that he might die violently. What -- that sweet
baby boy? The very same: all grown up; stripped, mocked, pierced, nailed to
a cross. That same sweet baby.
It sounds hard. No wonder. The condition of the human race is
hard -- sometimes hardest just when it seems softest, with science at our
beck and call, ready to beat back death, enlarge the supply of commercial
enticements and even think for us.
The God who had shaped and made man in his own image certainly
knew all this and knew, moreover, what he wanted to do about it. His Son
would, as it were, take the fall. The sweetness of the beginning would turn
to pain and death.
This odd paradox would endure. On God's green Earth there would
be joy, pleasure, laughter, contentment. And it would be good in God's eyes,
contrary to what various of his servants would contend.
Yet these particular servants -- "puritanical" is the word often
used to characterize their worldview -- were not wholly wrong. The world's
leaks and groans and blockages were not, and could never be, eliminated with
a visit from the divine plumber. The trouble was fundamental. It involved an
imbalance in the human race itself. This meant pain and suffering. It
involved -- yes -- war and killing, as well as bankruptcies and corruption;
likewise poisonous words and malicious deeds of all sorts.
In these oh-so-rational times, evil people, both here and
abroad, would murder the innocent; headlines would chronicle the growing
possibility of biological warfare.
Days before Christmas, Americans at home swapped bitter words
about a birthday party salute, while Americans abroad perfected their
preparations for the likely invasion of Iraq.
A national shortage of sweetness was in evidence. Still, it was
Christmas, which was what counted in the end.
That sweet baby in the stable, the one who was nailed unsweetly
to the cross -- how was he called? Among his various names, so one of the
prophets had said, was Emmanuel -- "God with us." Say it slowly for the full
effect. God with us now; with us to the end, amid the worst we do to one
A blessed, and merry, Christmas to all.