The time draws near

Posted: Dec 25, 2003 12:00 AM

"The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The Moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist."

- Tennyson

And so, yes, the time draws near - the time for children, and a Child.

This is the time for celebrating a birth. Births are commonplace. They happen every day, every hour, every minute. But this particular birth, this particular Child, changed the course of history more than any other. He was the Lord made man; Emmanuel, God with us - the incarnate Deity bringing light and life to Earth. And lest we forget, He brought a message.

Word of his birth spread, and Luke has told us what happened: Many people went to Bethlehem to "see this thing which (had come) to pass, which the Lord hath made known ... And they came with haste." They ran to this babe in a manger because they knew that here at last for all mankind was the embodiment of ... hope.

Here was the young exemplar, the baby who would live for but 33 years the paradigmatic life. They took Him presents. And of all the presents He received, He possibly liked most of all the gift of the drummer boy: the boy's song.

In the hope contained within the incarnate Lord, lying in the hay, do we not find the fundamental message of Christmas? Hope, yes. And promise. And aspiration. If those things are what the Christ Child was all about, they also are what children everywhere are all about. For babies begin their lives unencumbered by sins and errors. Newborn babies are promise and potential; they represent the aspirations of their parents; they are, in brief, the embodiments of hope.

So it is altogether fitting and proper - altogether right - that Christmas be child-oriented, because it IS Child-oriented. Children have a connection of purity with Christ that grows sullied and stretched as we age - as we wander farther from fulfilling the ideals we represented at our birth. We know it. That may be why it gladdens us so much to see children gladdened at Christmastime.

And that may be why the most childish Christmas carols tend to evoke in us the most choking responses: "Away in a Manger," "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem," "Silent Night." These are the songs we learn as children. They speak of mystery and a child's wonder. These enduring carols, as T.S. Eliot observed, are telling us of "humility, beauty and joy, based on a devotion that is at once religious and realistic."

Realistic. The essence of the Christmas message is that it is realistic to be optimistic, to have hope. That is the message we implicitly know when we gaze upon the manger scene; that is the message we implicitly know when we gaze upon our children: the reality of hope - the word that no matter how grim or dismal one's condition, that condition is not hopeless. So on Christmas we give, or ought to, in symbolic celebration of God's having given Christ to us.

The story of the babe lying in a manger has lived through the ages. It has endured. It has survived confusions, absurdities, paradoxes, intellectual iconoclasm and relentless efforts to wipe out its every trace. Since the Incarnation, indeed, there have been efforts a million times over to explain it all away. There have been cynics to challenge the veracity of the infancy narratives. There have been historicists, the current ones telling us, for instance, that the Star of the Davidic Messiah leading the Magi to Bethlehem was simply a stellar flare-up. Today the story faces perhaps its most systematic and ruthless - and most threatening - challenge, in the form of a religiously fervent atheism that seeks to substitute man for God.

Yet the efforts of all the "realists" are essentially irrelevant to the fact of Christ's birth - about which there is little serious doubt. And in that birth, mankind finally was infused with a purpose for life. Now, in Tennyson's words, "the time draws near." As it does, as we approach the feverish giving and getting, we dare not lose in an ocean of wrapping paper the message of purpose and hope brought by the man from Galilee.

The wish for you is both - purpose and hope - today, and every day throughout the year. And a merry Christmas, too.