Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the nightly news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident. As I turned on the lights on the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something Christmasy.”
Then it occurred to me. This is probably as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas undecorated. This is real Christmas, and it is a shame that we try to cover it up with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with lights and decorate it. We romanticize and sentimentalize the whole Christmas scene with gleeful music and cheerful food.
Perhaps it is because in our shallow minds, the scene is majestic. It is glorious: angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus; a brilliant star rising in the east; a baby worshipped by shepherds and kings and even animals. In our nativity scene, there is no crying, no hunger, no disease, no anxiety, no fear, no mourning. Our nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene.
However, this was not the reality of the first Noel. Christmas reality was not beautiful and was far from perfect. And no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend; we cannot conceal the real harshness of it, the harsh realness of it. Christmas reality, says the prophet Isaiah is “like, a root out of dry ground.” Jesus was born among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.
Yes, Kings, Magi or Wise Men came to worship the baby, but we like to forget that King Herod was using those eastern visitors to locate the baby so he could run a sword through him. And we forget the holocaust in Ramah, the innocent babies slaughtered, the desperate cries of anguish and despair from parents because there children were “no more.” We forget the escape to Egypt like homeless refugees. This is Christmas reality.
This is the reality of it, and this is the good news of it! The good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. The good news of Christmas is that God came into our depressing mess. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and pain and died a very real death.
Someone who was suffering with terminal cancer once told me: “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become. In the moments of my most immense suffering, God is the most real to me.”
Through the coming of God in Christ into a very real and broken world, we know that God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God knows what it feels like to feel forsaken by God. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments when life is the most real and the most broken.
Thank God something as depressing as the nightly news can actually be Christmasy.