Cross and Caduceus

Every year I face the same dilemma. I struggle to grasp the meaning of Christmas. Maybe I’m not being clear. I think I understand the essential meaning of Christmas. It’s about God-become-man, in order that man could come to God. But even with that simple understanding, it’s hard to comprehend something so big. It’s even more difficult and frustrating in a computer-generated, cable-modem world, where answers seem always available at the speed of light. It’s no easier than when all we had were books, spoken stories or pictures. The hard reality is that the meaning, the comprehension, of important things has always lingered just outside the grasp of humanity. Our modernity, our technology, these are only tools. They can only aid our hearts.

Edwin Leap

When we cannot find easy answers, it’s easy to blame the press of modern life, or modern entertainment, or any number of things we find in society that may serve as distractions from our search for things of eternal value. But as Shakespeare said, the fault lies not with our stars, but with ourselves.

As we search for the meaning of Christmas, we want the depth, but at a bargain price. We want the warmth and comfort, without the dark, cold, lonely pilgrimage that is required of those who follow God. It has never changed. It was difficult to grasp in the first century. It remains so.

I wonder about these things. I wonder about the shepherds to whom the angels announced Jesus’ birth. Over-awed, filled with wonder, they rushed to the manger. But after the trumpets were silent, and after they had hiked back into the hills to be (still) shepherds, what did they think? How did they embrace the fact that they had witnessed something so magnificent and so contrasted? A king in a manger, a prophet still an infant, a deliverer powerless and whimpering in the arms of a young girl.

Even Mary, we are told, pondered these things in her heart. The mother of the Messiah, in whose body he had become incarnate from distant realms and dimensions, and still she pondered. She had no easy answers, only the words of angels and the conflicting joy and fear that must have enwrapped her like the cold of the night and the smell of the animals all around.

And what did it mean not so long after the birth, to the prophet and prophetess in the temple, who had looked for this person for their entire lives? They surely grasped the meaning. They had prayed for years to see him arrive. But did they expect him in this way, this Prince of Peace, presented like any other little child? The old man Simeon knew some of it. “He will bring about the rising and falling of many, and a sword will pierce your heart also,” he said to Mary. But still, I imagine that he and Anna spoke later, and shook their old heads at all of it, sitting at last in the sunlight outside, their dreams realized.

For me, the Magi provide the best model for our search. Priests from far away, possibly in what is now Iran, they knew the Hebrew Scriptures. They would have known the meaning, certainly. They followed the star! But their search was not an easy one. No first-class flights then. They risked many forms of death to find the child. They abandoned their lives of privilege for a while, and knelt before a ruler who was by then probably a mere 2 years old. They lived in a time when it was clear that the meaning of Christmas was especially expensive. Their pilgrimage, their rich gifts, were evidence that they knew the worth of things divine.

Our lives are empty without wonder and hope. And we want it so very much. But we have forgotten that it is only with great effort that we apprehend something so powerful as God-become-man to ease man’s burden and bring him to heaven. Television specials, pastoral pictures on cards, even 24-hour carols can’t convey what we so desire. No simple Sunday morning catch-phrases can accomplish it.

What we desire may take a lifetime. Because what we want, and need, is to step beyond platitudes about the meaning of Christmas. And we can, if we accept that it lies in the complicated collage of the prophets past, the suffering, dying world, the manger, the child, our fears, our hopes, and, finally, the cross.

Merry Christmas, friends. Thank you again for your prayers for my wife Jan in her fight with cancer since last Christmas. God heard you, and she is doing well.