Christmas Aftermath - thrive UMC Official Blog

Christmas Aftermath

For a number of years now, I’ve felt like the week that follows Christmas day is the Stephen Baldwin of December: given its predecessors, it’s just kind of a let-down.  I mean, here we have the whole exciting season of Advent dedicated to building up our grand Christmas expectations; and that season is typically characterized by a whole lot of frenetic activity of assembling and planning and dressing up.  Meanwhile, in our minds, we can’t help but anticipate how beautiful and triumphant and serene it’s all going to be, once Christmas day finally arrives.  The house will be so striking. The family will be so happy!  The gifts will be so deeply appreciated!  The food and treats and company will all leave us all so completely satisfied! Oh, if only Christmas could be today!

For a number of years now, I’ve felt like the week that follows Christmas day is the Stephen Baldwin of December: given its predecessors, it’s just kind of a let-down.  I mean, here we have the whole exciting season of Advent dedicated to building up our grand Christmas expectations; and that season is typically characterized by a whole lot of frenetic activity of assembling and planning and dressing up.  Meanwhile, in our minds, we can’t help but anticipate how beautiful and triumphant and serene it’s all going to be, once Christmas day finally arrives.  The house will be so striking. The family will be so happy!  The gifts will be so deeply appreciated!  The food and treats and company will all leave us all so completely satisfied! Oh, if only Christmas could be today!

But then, Christmas actually happens.

 And instead of feeling like the peaceful fulfillment we all had hoped for, the Christmas Event so often feels instead like something more of just an indiscriminate eruption.  The once-glistening, pristine wrapping paper becomes shining litter that blankets the floor.  The gifts, so carefully selected, become jagged-edged land mines for your bare feet, hidden under the tatters of your new, gaudy carpet –set to trigger the shrieking alarm of full-blown Christmas horror with a resounding snap of plastic.  The plates and pans that had so recently served love-labored meals and sugary treats turn into crusty, noxious symbols of regret.  With your swollen belly full of terrible choices, you can’t even bear to look at those dishes, which seem to be crying out, begging for someone to scrub, or at least hide, them.  The guests, so warmly and eagerly welcomed at first, soon begin to feel like intruders into, and conspirators of, the newly-created disaster zone you had so recently called your home –with their foreign scents and never-quite-tidy-enough bathroom habits soiling all of your illusions with their pungent reality. 

Or, if you didn’t happen to host Christmas this year, then maybe we’re tense and tired from long car rides, or frustrating airport delays. So that we arrive home again, always later than we had intended to only to rediscover everything still so chocked-full of Christmas cheer, that you have no more room to stow the spoils of your Christmas booty.  And the only impression it gives is an overwhelming sense of too much stuff that demands a space in your life. 

And somehow, Christmas becomes, in that moment, something you have to dismantle and hide from sight for the next eleven months. we still have to go back to where we live and make plans for disassembling our holiday cheer: we have to take down the ornaments and lights, put away the stockings, disassemble or discard the tree, and carefully pack the figures of the nativity (including little baby Jesus) back in their safe, happy box so everything can be brought out again for the enjoyment of next year –just like it has been in all the years past.  Meanwhile our hearts resume their customary rhythm as if all that is extraordinary about the celebration is now done and gone. 

Thus now we have to settle into that lingering sense of disquiet which incessantly begs: ‘well now what?’ What became of our anticipation as the presents were opened and became a part of our routine inventory?  What about all of our preparations and excitement –now that the party is about to be over?  What do we do with this newfound God-child again, as we recall this profound innovation on the behalf of our Creator, as it establishes itself among the other countless habits and rituals of our lives?  Does the hope, and the joy, and the peace, and the love yet remain? Or do we go back to that bygone B.C. era, where life was simple and there was something better to look forward to?  To return to that ancient hope where things will be better next year?  Friends, what’s happening to Christmas, now that the moment has come?

Perhaps it would help to recall what happened to Mary and Joseph in the Bible, once Jesus was born.  Too often, I think, we gaze upon their story through rose-colored glasses, imagining their triumph and struggle as if things were really as simple and serene for the holy family as they appear in all of our nativity scenes.  As if a barnyard birth after an eighty-some mile journey on foot would leave all of its participants calm and docile like a bunch of emotionally detached psychopaths.  I mean did Mary just give birth, or did she just get back from a really chill Dave Matthews/Grateful Dead/ Phish concert?  Because those of us who actually remember some of the days immediately following the arrival of a real-life human bundle joy want to know: are all of the stained linens and ancient equivalent of dirty diapers hidden under the manger or something?  Where are the cow-pies and sheep pellets of the stable?  What happened to the afterbirth and the prominent, deep purple bags under the sleep-deprived eyes of Mary and Joseph?  Where is Joseph’s mother hiding as she mumbles snide criticisms of Mary’s rocking techniques under her breath? 

Because unfortunately, things weren’t so easy for Mary and Joseph back then, and the situation didn’t exactly improve after Jesus arrived on the scene either.  In fact, the Christmas Event is precisely the moment when much of the trouble begins.  Indeed, we call Jesus the “Prince of Peace” but yet we’ll miss that title’s full depth of meaning if we forget all of those unnumbered Jewish babies who were slaughtered in his place before he ever died for anyone else’s sin.  Truly, we’ll miss the significance of his triumphant arrival on earth if we neglect to remember the kind of world he was birthed into –a world that was not ready for him; a world that didn’t recognize who he was and in too many cases it was a world that did not want him.

That’s why today, I think we might all benefit from spending time with the person who just might be the most secretly-relatable character in whole Christmas story, as we find it in Matthew: King Herod.

Now, just as a quick bit of background: this story takes place while the Roman Empire holds power over the land that had belonged to Israel and Judah in the time of the Hebrew Bible.  But the Romans preferred means for maintaining public order over vast territories was to utilize tribal kings and leaders to govern local populations, according to their native customs, so far as they didn’t interfere with, or undermine, Roman law.  So Herod was the tribal leader who ruled over the Judean people –he was ‘the king of the Jews,’ so to speak.  Thus, when Herod hears the Magi announce that a new king of the Jews is to be born Bethlehem, to him it sounds like the coming of a rival.  Someone is coming along to take over his power, or the power that he intends to belong to his sons.  That’s why he has all of the baby boys killed in Bethlehem: because he doesn’t want anyone to threaten his position or take his place –and probably a hundred movies have been made since the 1970’s that start out with that premise.

But it works, because we can relate, can’t we?  Who here would be happy to discover that your company has recently hired someone who does the exact same stuff you do, only potentially better or more cheaply?  What is your visceral, human reaction when your own child of flesh and blood cannot shut up about how much they love the babysitter?  Who here genuinely celebrates the friendship your spouse has with a member of the opposite sex, who is also uncomfortably good looking?   None of us!  Right?  Because what would happen to us if the space we occupy could be assumed by someone else?  Just the thought of it is terrifying!  Where would we go; and what would we do; and more importantly: what would we be worth… if we could be so easily replaced?

And let’s be clear here: Herod is Jewish, with no way of being promoted any further up the ranks of the Roman Empire.  For him a rival king means displacement, or more likely, death.  So he does the very pragmatic thing and strikes first while the iron is hot.  In other words, he does the thing that probably all of us who are shrewd would do in his place.  Meaning, if you have ever taken action to protect your spot –or if you’ve ever experienced jealousy, or been threatened by the positive qualities of another human being or even something they have done, then you can relate to Herod in this story. 

Probably some of us have even done this around Christmas-time: scanning the room to see who had the best gift or ugly Christmas sweater.  I was at a Christmas party a couple of weeks ago, where they did one of those white elephant exchanges.  And for the most part, everyone brought gag gifts but I was third in line to pick a package, and I ended up opening what turned out to be, from my perspective, the coolest, best present that was there.  And round after round people are stealing other people’s gifts; but everyone seemed to have forgotten about me and the awesome thing I opened.  And it gets to the last round, and I’m in disbelief because I’m actually going to get to take my prized possession home!  But there was this weird rule about stealing presents; and you could have three steals per round, and it ended up that my gift was stolen at the very last moment –like a surprise 3-pointer that lands after the buzzer sounds- and I had no chance to steal anyone else’s Christmas joy to compensate.  And I’ll tell you: I didn’t even know the guy at the party who stole my gift, but I can say definitively that we will never be friends.  And while I don’t think it was quite bad enough for me to want to murder a whole village of infants, I do believe I have a pretty concrete grasp, through that experience, of what Herod felt in the presence of the Magi’s triumphant news. 

  But here’s the shock that’s only later discovered: that our rival here –the one we’re so worried is going to take our place and leave us demoted and homeless and dispossessed- is, at its very spiritual core: God.  The King that threatens Herod’s throne and position is the Son of the heavenly power he’s supposed to be serving. It turns out that God is imposing the divine self upon what Herod believes is rightfully his.  This shows us that there is this very natural, very human tension between what we want for ourselves and what God wants for the whole universe.  And in the end, our vein, selfish efforts have to go –or we do. 

For again, at it’s heart, the Christmas story is one of divine intrusion.  God is breaking in and trespassing into the lives and hopes and happenings of humanity.  Just as Christ threatened the power and lifestyle of King Herod, his presence in the world likewise threatens our own.  For we, just like Herod, tend to live too short-sightedly for only ourselves.  And when we live for ourselves, we can’t help but neglect both the possibility and the reality that God’s Kingdom is breaking forth on planet earth.  God is here to displace our unholy self-governance.  God is here to disrupt the status quo to make real a new revelation.  God is here to dispossess us of our small-minded humanity to show us a more divine way to live. 

In the birth of Jesus, as God puts on the flesh of a human being, there’s no longer any room to say ‘well God doesn’t belong there.’  We’ve lost the chance to draw barriers and say ‘this is God’s business, and this isn’t’ because God has already been there!  God has lived through it.  There’s no longer a place for all of our excuses and complaints because our Lord and Creator has given himself a human foot and stepped into the world he made  -a world now broken… broken by our pride and our stubbornness… broken by our rebellion and our unrighteous apathy.   There’s no longer a chance to say to God that this is too hard or ‘Lord, you don’t know what it’s like down here –you don’t know anything about being weak or afraid’ because he was once weak, and he carried the full weight of terror.  And he suffered in a million ways we’ll never know. 

Indeed, the Triune God knows everything about our life –first hand- from the messy birth pains of being squeezed from the womb, to the awkward displacement of being a hormonal teenager, to the temptations of power and wealth, to the frustrations of being surrounded by companions of incompetence and weak wills, to the daily humiliation of being in need; and he remembers the agony of death by a world that did not want him. 

And yet he loves us anyway.

And so it is that we must approach Christmas with joyful, heavy hearts.  Because God has shown us that he will literally do anything to be a living, active part of our lives.  And he doesn’t just want in on the pretty parts –the parts where we act nicely and perform gracefully with pearly-white smiles and carefully combed hair.  God even wants to be a part of our messes.  Maybe He especially desires to be a part of our messes.  Thus, if your home is a train-wreck of a place, strewn with all kinds of garbage and newfound stains on the carpet, God wants to be there.  If your life is categorized by disappointment and vein efforts, and filled with the wrong kinds of gifts, given in the wrong direction, God is not squeamish.  And if your heart is padlocked and double-barred to guard the darkness and emptiness inside, then Jesus is already at the threshold, gently knocking.

Friends, Christmas is not just one day.  Indeed, it’s not even a season, but it the constant and reoccurring welcome of God into our lives.  It is the remembrance of God’s Holy trespass right into our world and life.  It is the daily joy and peace that comes from being deeply and wholly loved.  It is the hope that even we, as messy as our hearts and lives happen to be, can be saved.  And we are called to continually extend that welcome –maybe that’s even the heart of the Christian identity: to be a people of a vast and enduring welcome, even when it hurts.  We are called to let the light shine, even into the most hideous corners of our existence.  We are called to welcome the love of God even into our hate.  And we are called to extend that welcome beyond to others, who don’t yet know that they’re missing. 

Of course, we’ve got a long way to go.  But today is just the beginning.  Again.  So let us return to the God of all things and places: and may we welcome him in prayer.

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