The true sweetness of Christmas

Posted: Dec 24, 2002 12:00 AM
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 getting somewhere? 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 creche figures. 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 sin. 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 another A blessed, and merry, Christmas to all.