Her name sounds like holiday music — Carol. When she smiles her eyes dance like visions of sugar plums in the misty Christmas dreams of children. But Carol’s eyes don’t often dance these days. In December she decorates the tree and strings the lights and hangs the mistletoe and holly. She wears festive holiday seaters, angel earrings and a bright red bow in her hair. Carol bakes Santa-shaped cookies for her children and hangs a handmade stocking for each over the fireplace.
Early in the month she orders a gift for her husband, something practical, but impersonal. “The perfect gift for that important business associate” is how the catalogue advertises it. Carol’s marriage has grown as cold as the December wind that sweeps dead leaves across her well manicured lawn. She goes through the motions of Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t move her any more.
Carol would trade the hardwood floors and the mahogany furniture in their comfortable home for one evening’s worth of the way it once was. They had far less to spend, but more love to give.
Now she walks through the great room toward the cabinet where she keeps a secret. The artificial glow of the electric candles in the windows is the only light in the room. She finds the flask and pours a drink. The familiar aroma of the beverage mingles with the scent of holly hanging on the mantle. Everything around her expresses the joy of Christmas. Everything within her contradicts it. For some people Christmas magnifies more than the birth of Christ.
What story will we tell Carol this holiday season? Perhaps we will choose the gospel of Luke. Luke presents columns of caroling angels heralding joyful tidings to timid shepherds. Luke has sweet old people taking an eight-day-old Jesus into their arms and thanking God for letting them live long enough to see Israel’s salvation. Wonderful angel choirs and doting surrogate grandparents make a moving Christmas pageant. But not everyone can identify with peace on earth and good will toward men and women.
His family name sounds like an overcast day — Gray. Mr. Gray visits the cemetery more frequently than any church. He goes to tend the grave of his deceased wife. Her resting place is marked by a large, granite headstone. With dimming eyes he reads the words, “Margaret Elizabeth Gray.” In a whispered voice he speaks the name. Rust colored dust from a nearby construction site has settled into the horizontal crevices of the letters that spell her name and the numbers that count her years.
From the pocket of his overcoat, Mr. Gray pulls a soft-bristled brush and sweeps the marker clean. Bending over stiffly, he centers an arrangement of poinsettias in the white gravel that drains away the rain water and keeps the weeds at bay.
A gust of wind blows the flowers over, and he winces as he reaches to catch them. Age, grief and the cold have slowed his reactions, and one of the stems is badly damaged. It hangs by a bare, green thread. He struggles to decide what to do about the broken flower; leave it alone and hope it will survive, or concede the inevitable; pull it from the arrangement and let it die. The decision about this flower is harder to make than it should be, he knows. He has been here before, trying to hold on to a dying flower, loving her too much to let her go.
He touches the headstone once more, tracing the letters of her name, and turns to leave. He will catch a flight to be with the kids by Christmas eve. Still he lingers, half hoping he will miss the plane. For Mr. Gray, Christmas died and was buried six years ago. But the children worry, and besides, the youngest grandchild has Margaret Elizabeth’s eyes. He will miss her just as much from there as he will from here. For some people, Christmas magnifies more than the birth of Christ.
What story will we tell Mr. Gray this holiday season? The gospel of John offers a unique perspective. John reaches further back in time than any of the other gospels to introduce us to the Word who dwelt with God before creation. Turn the cylinder of John’s kaleidoscope, and the images of Jesus explode before our eyes. He is Word. Life. Light. Lamb. Messiah. Christ. King. Son of God! John’s Jesus does not market well. There is no syrupy-sweet Christ child there. No plump cherubs. John’s Jesus is God’s first and final word, the fullest expression of Himself. But some people live in darkness so deep they cannot easily comprehend the light of life.
Their names are hard to pronounce and easy to make fun of, these little children who live in the inner-city. They entertain few of the seasonal fantasies others embrace so fondly. The black Santa they saw at school last week was unconvincing. He is buried in a blizzard of white. In Sunday school the other day one of them asked, “Was Jesus a white man?” The teacher offered an evasive answer.
On weekdays after school they let themselves into the apartment and lock the door behind them. The oldest, a girl of ten, prepares a snack for her younger siblings. While she scrounges something for supper they watch television until their mother walks home from the diner where she waits tables. The youngest is still innocent enough to be taken in by the commercials she sees. She greets her mother with a crudely spelled wish list. “We’ll see, baby. We’ll see.” It is a tired answer and the mother is tired of giving it. For some people, Christmas magnifies more than the birth of Christ.
Christmas can be a glittering backdrop against which the pain and emptiness of many lives seem all the darker. Many of the people who will visit our churches this season are emotionally contradicted by the lights, the sights and the music. We may convincingly present Jesus as the long awaited messiah, but if people feel out of sync with the season, they may conclude that though He is indeed a King, He isn’t theirs. That is why we need to tell the whole Christmas story, especially the darker parts of it.
Matthew’s gospel doesn’t have angel choirs. He has an angel. The lone angel presents not a solo but a soliloquy. He doesn’t sing, he warns. Matthew tells of a scandalous pre-marital pregnancy that begs to be hushed and of a troubling dream that cannot be forgotten. Strange foreign visitors arrive in Jerusalem and are interrogated by a conspiring king. Herod learns from them that a pretender to the throne has been born in Bethlehem. Forget peaceful transfers of power. Forget a nationally known preacher praying over the new administration. In those days soldiers wiped the blood of losing candidates off their swords, and undertakers performed their grim task. When the news is known that a king has been born in Bethlehem, the head that wears the crown is unsettled. At Herod’s order war horses thunder into the little town.
Burly soldiers dismount, kick in cottage doors and snatch screaming babies from hysterical mothers. In Matthew’s story there is precious little “peace and good will toward men and women.”
Herod had long since grown accustomed to securing his crown by murdering his enemies. Many of his own family members had tasted the blade. Executing a dozen or so toddlers in the little town of Bethlehem, a village no larger than a modern suburban mall, was no great ethical discomfort. And it was a measured military strike targeting only those males two years old and under; hardly a high mark in Herod’s violent history. But soldiers crashing into houses in the wee hours of the morning, bent on carrying out the king’s orders, would not have been too concerned with the precise age of the little ones they murdered. If a child looked two, he died.
Had it not been a prophesy from Jeremiah, Matthew’s comment on the horrid event might have been a reporter’s description in the Judean Post Newspaper the following day. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.”
Ramah was the city from which the Babylonian exiles had been deported. It lived in Israel’s memory as a place of grief, loss and unsurpassed emotional pain. Bethlehem, birth place of the new king, had now become the new symbolic center of sorrow.
God barely got His foot in the world’s door before Satan tried to slam it shut. There can be little doubt that what happened in Bethlehem was inspired by Satan. John, writing from exile on Patmos, describes the episode in highly symbolic and dramatic language. “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to His throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God” (Rev. 12:1-6).
It is hardly Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, but it is part of the Nativity story. Christmas is about more than plump cherubs and bejeweled wise men bearing gold, frankinsence and myrrh. The story of Christ’s coming included enormous red dragons bent on destroying the work of God before it began. It included evil kings, green with envy and children crying, then dying in the night. Must we tell this part of the story? Isn’t there enough pain and suffering in our world already? Should we douse the gentle flame of Christmas with so much ice-cold reality?
In our world drunk drivers cross center lines and erase entire families. Children are treated like punching bags for their parents. Marriages resemble barroom brawls, or, like Carol’s, lifeless sepulchers. Poinsettias decorate December graves. Inner-city children step over comatose winos on their way to school. Many people feel the presence of evil so close they can almost smell Satan’s breath. They know what it is like to weep over children because they are no more. They know what it is to have the peace of their lives shattered by an abrupt and violent invasion of evil. They know what it means to be victims.
When we tell the darker part of the Christmas story something happens in the hearts of these listeners. They begin to entertain an unbelievable possibility; solidarity with God. God knows what it is like to be weak and vulnerable. God knows what it is to hurry out of town in the dark of night, running for his life from a violent oppressor.
These listeners begin to imagine that the pain they suffer is not necessarily because of some sin they have committed. They learn that evil is an indiscriminate tormentor, targeting even innocent babies in a hell-bent attempt to destroy the work of God. They learn that the good news is for them, that they are included when the angels announce glad tidings for all the people.
Watch carefully this December. Carol might come to one of your services. So might Mr. Gray. So might the little latchkey children and their tired mother. They will experience all the pageantry of Christian worship at Christmas. They will see the gaily decorated sanctuary. They will hear the triumphant music. They will taste the bread and smell the wine. But will they be able to touch the Jesus we celebrate? If we trust the gospel, if we tell all of it, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, we just might witness another Christmas miracle. Those who live in the darkness of a Christmas nightmare will begin to see a marvelous light.

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