Between Joy and Hope: A Christmas Reflection

Posted by Abdu Murray, on December 23, 2016
Topic: Blog

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Our family loves watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, the 1965 animated special. It’s odd that something seemingly frivolous as a cartoon can plumb the depths of Christmas. In the special, Charlie Brown is frustrated because his friends are putting on a Christmas pageant that perpetuates the modern consumerism that has absorbed the holiday. When he finally shouts for someone to give him the true meaning of Christmas, the diminutive Linus takes the stage. In his quiet, soft voice, Linus quotes the story of Jesus’s birth from Luke 2:8-14 (Linus likes the King James translation):

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, Good will toward men.

Linus then walks over to his beleaguered friend and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Surprisingly, that special is still aired on network television, a fleetingly rare expression in the mainstream media of Christ in Christmas.

Why bring up a child’s cartoon? Because it is, dare I say, a profound piece of art—charmingly drawn, wonderfully written, and subtly powerful. There’s something artistically subtle in that scene that makes me appreciate it even more. In his article “Just Drop the Blanket”, Jason Soroski points out that just as Linus utters the words “fear not” from Luke 2, he drops his security blanket.[1] Linus is never without his trusty blue blanket, clinging to it to feel secure and safe. And yet as he recounts the story of Jesus’ birth and the courage it inspires, he let’s go of his security blanket, needing nothing more than the Christmas story to give him the hope of security.

Critics of theism in general, and of Christianity in particular, have likened belief in God to belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. It’s nothing but a charming story for those with childlike belief. When we get older, so the critic says, we should abandon our childish belief in God just as we abandoned our childish belief in Santa Claus. It may have inspired us for a time, but that time is over.

What a shallow assessment, if I may say. The gospel narrative inspires at a level far deeper. Can a mere children’s myth be as enduring as the Gospel, not only over the centuries but in the decades of our own lives from childhood to the grave? Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it so well when he exposed the shallow comparison of belief in God and belief in children’s stories:

One of the things that most needs saying to the cultured despisers of religion today is that the classical language of faith is overflowing with resources for imagining and understanding human experience at depth. As I’ve said on other occasions, when people compare Christian belief to belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, I want to ask, where are the Divine Comedies or Matthew Passions or Four Quartets inspired by the tooth fairy?[2]

Childish stories may lead to childish fleeting emotions or temporary wonder, and they may even inspire art on soda cans. But they simply don’t have the power to inspire lasting works of art that perpetuate our emotion and wonder. The paintings of the great masters, music like Handel’s Messiah, and even subtle depictions in children’s cartoons come from a message much deeper than the secularized trappings of the modern holiday season. They come from the history of Jesus’s birth and the theology of what his birth means.

The Gift of Peace

In Luke 2, when the angelic host announced “peace on Earth,” to the frightened shepherds that night, they announced the birth of joy and hope. The Hebrew word for peace is Shalom, the Arabic word is Salaam, and the Aramaic word is similar to both (Jesus spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic). The words Shalom and Salaam connote a state of being whole, being completed, at rest, and reconciled.[3] Both Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages, so it’s not surprising that Shalom and Salaam would sound alike and share a common definition. But what is surprising is that the non-Semitic, Greek word for peace, Eirene, shares the same definition with Shalom and Salaam. Eirene means more than just a lack of conflict, but also a state of being “set at one” and having reconciliation in relationships.[4] Luke used Eirene to communicate the heavenly host’s announcement of Jesus’ birth and the Apostle John used Eirene to communicate the peace that Jesus offered to his disciples. The angelic host was announcing the advent of the One through whom reconciliation would be achieved. And Jesus offered his disciples the kind of peace that is manifest in being “set at one” again with God. Perhaps we might miss the profundity here just easily as we miss the fact that Linus dropped his security blanket when he said “Fear not.” The words for peace in Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek—the languages from three cultures that have been historically at odds with each other—mean reconciliation. God is indeed a poet in any language, sometimes in every language at the same time.

The birth of reconciliation’s hope at Christmas does more than inspire art and language. It inspires action. In the winter of 1914, the First World War was only five months old and already about 800,000 men had been wounded or killed. On France’s Western Front, British and German soldiers had been fiercely fighting. On Christmas Eve that year, they braced themselves for yet another day of bombs and blood. But that day would be different from all others.

British soldiers in the trenches raised signs reading “Merry Christmas” and sang Christmas carols. Soon, they heard Christmas carols coming from the German trenches. On Christmas morning, both sides rose from their trenches and met in the middle of No Man’s Land. They sang songs and engaged in conversations together. They exchanged sweets and cigars. And in one spot, they played soccer. Along the front, the spontaneous truce continued into the next day, with neither side willing to fire the first shot. The truce ended when fresh troops arrived.[5] Enemies, who only days before had been engaged in fierce combat, had acted as if they were brothers. If it was possible then, between World War I’s horrid trenches, it is possible again.

May I suggest something rather audacious? Nothing else could have inspired the Christmas truce. No secular sloganeering encouraging soldiers to stop worrying and enjoy their lives could have bridged No Man’s Land’s gap. No presidential speech and no New Age call to unity could have turned No Man’s Land into a glee-filled playground. Only the story of Hope’s birth could do that, even if only for a moment.

Perhaps that’s why Christmas does more than just punctuate winter’s dreariness with a cup of cheer. To be sure, we celebrate birthdays of other people who have done great things for humanity. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, of course. And while we observe those important births, we don’t dedicate an entire season to them like we do for Jesus. If Jesus’s birth was just the birth of another important historical figure, we might enjoy a three-day weekend and reflect on his example, but that would be it. Why is Christmas so much more than that?

Because Jesus’s birth is indeed hope’s birth, which blossoms at Easter. We hint at the interaction between Christmas and Easter in the song O Holy Night:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

Till he appeared and the souls felt its worth.

The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Jesus didn’t come into the world to give us only good words and profound examples of moral living. He came specifically to provide a rescue for every human heart, to rescue us from sin and spiritual death by paying the penalty we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves. In Jesus’s own words, he came into the world as God incarnate to offer himself as a ransom so that we can be saved (Mark 10:45). And because of Jesus’s payment and resurrection, our souls can feel their worth. Christmas is not just the birth of someone whose example helped humanity. It’s the birth of the One who saves humanity from itself. In a paradox of time, Easter’s hope gives rise to Christmas’s joy.

For Our Sake

From inspiring art to inspiring peace, we come to Christmas’s ability to inspire our individual lives. Christmas is the story of the “Word made flesh,” God dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. That truth can penetrate us individually in surprising, miraculous ways. A new friend recently told me of how the Word of God has worked quite the poetic miracle in his father’s life. Years ago, his dad was living a wretched life. Abusive, alcoholic, and just generally unpleasant, he somehow gave his life to Christ. That transformed everything for him in an instant, causing him to dedicate his life to ministry. But now in his twilight years, he has been stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Yet he has periods of total lucidity. And in those moments, he leads a Bible study at the memory care facility he lives in now. Even the facility’s staff attends. How beautiful it is that the Word of God unlocks this aging preacher’s ability to wax eloquent about God the Word made flesh. It calls to mind St. Augustine’s quote about the miraculous and inspirational nature of God’s incarnation in Christ:

He so loved us that, for our sake, 

He was made a man in time, although through him all times were made.

He was made who made man.

He was created of a mother whom he created.

He was held by hands that he formed.

He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, 

He the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.[6]

Our human eloquence, whether through words, paintings, or actions, are mute without the divine Word. My friend’s father would have no eloquence without the Word of God to nourish his mind about God the Word made flesh.

But a weary world, in sin and error pining, still exists despite Christmas’s joy that anticipates Easter’s hope. As I write, the trial of Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, has just gotten underway. Roof brought hate-fueled violence into a church named Emanuel—meaning God with us. It was a place where his roiling heart could find peace. The church’s faithful thought nothing of Roof’s race when they welcomed him in, sharing God’s word and the message of salvation with him for 45 minutes. Though they did nothing to invite or incite the violence Roof committed, those Christians did what faithful Christians have done through the centuries. They invited a stranger to know the joy and hope of Christ. But Dylann Roof would have none of that. He gave full vent to his hate and left shattered lives in his wake. Those who survived that assault are now spending the Christmas season in a courtroom reliving the worst days of their lives. For them, there won’t be many silent nights this December.

The world wasn’t suddenly made perfect 2000 years ago and it certainly isn’t perfect now. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t paint such a shallow picture for us even as it recounts Jesus’s birth. His advent is surrounded by pain. The selfish and hateful King Herod wanted the Messiah exterminated so that he could remain king. And so he ordered the deaths of children who fit the Messiah’s profile in Bethlehem. For the parents of those children, the nights before Jesus’s birth were anything but silent. But whether in Charleston, South Carolina, Bethlehem, or your and my living rooms, God offers us anticipated hope through the joy of his Son’s birth. Sometimes kids’ cartoons can surprise us. Sometimes battlefield miracles cause peace to break out. And sometimes eloquent preaching wafts through the halls of nursing homes. But all of that, the pain and the joy, the beauty and the ugliness, are but echoes emerging from a manger where the wordless infant carried within himself the message that God so loves the world. All of our human expressions of joy, hope, and peace are footnotes to the embodied message of the Christ-child.

May you be inspired, in the midst of profanity, violence, uncertainty, and all of it, to have joy because of the hope Jesus offers.

 

Abdu Murray is North American Director with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and lives in the Detroit area with his wife and their three children.

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[1] Jason Soroski, “Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas” at http://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/christmas-and-advent/just-drop-the-blanket-the-moment-you-never-noticed-in-a-charlie-brown-christmas.html.

[2] John F. Deane, “A Conversation with Rowan Williams,” Image Magazine, Issue 80. https://imagejournal.org/article/conversation-rowan-williams/.

[3] James Strong, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, fully revised and corrected by John R. Kohlenberger and James A Swanson (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2001).

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (New York: The Free Press, 2001).

[6] Augustine, Sermon 188, 2.