God with us (part 1 of 2)

[namesake note:  this post is entirely too long, so I split it into 2 parts.  it’s still too long, BUT . . . ]

“I bring you good tidings of great joy,” the angel proclaimed.  “Today, in the city of David, a savior is born.”

As I listened to the pre-Christmas sermon in our church a couple of weekends back, in the packed worship center with 800 or so of my closest congregant friends, and my kids all tucked away in their classes, except Meghan who was sleeping on my lap, I thought about how cliche the Christmas story has become in our culture and how that reflects my own recent attitude.

The story is not new.  My kids have persuaded me to discontinue the tradition of a dramatic reading of the biblical account on Christmas Eve by explaining that by the time we get to Christmas Eve each year, exhausted and frantic from the season’s pace, they’ve heard the story a dozen times in the previous weeks from various angles and interpretations.  They know the story.

We know the reason for the season, and the arguments for keeping Christ in Christmas, and the importance of saying Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays.  We know about the wisemen and the shepherds, the manger and the donkey and the star.  The cattle are lowing at the baby in swaddling clothes, for whatever that’s worth.

Christmas has become cliche and we typically scratch only the surface of its meaning.  What’s the use in letting the story have more time?  We’ve heard it a thousand times, and we’ve heard the arguments for remembering why it needs more time more than a thousand times (or some other big number).  We’re overstuffed with Christmas and the guilt of not giving it its due.

My family spent a lot of time over the last few weeks shopping and running errands, preparing and planning and having hushed conversations about who needs what.  Not to mention the effort expended to meet social obligations – the Christmas pictures and letters, the parties, the neighbors, the cards, the calls.

Meanwhile, we’ve had kids with bronchitis and fevers, a washing machine that’s forming a pond in the laundry room carpet, a 14-year-old minivan with the driver’s door flying open at random moments and the other two doors almost functioning, and a growing list of things that need to be done yesterday in order to maintain the illusion of sanity and competence.

I know, I know.  I’m whiny and cynical, but I’m not finished.

On the Monday before Christmas, the cover photo and story of the New York Times portrayed a pack of starving Zimbabwean children picking up kernels of corn that had been spilled by a passing truck.  The only times in my life I’ve been hungry have been voluntary and temporary.  I found myself trying with great difficulty to relate to the way a child in Zimbabwe, or wherever, would feel as he kneels down to pick up a few crumbs to ease his hunger pains.

Now, as you would suspect from a post such as this, from a well-meaning, yet occasionally pitiful, fellow like myself, there’s a big “BUT” coming somewhere in the next few sentences to redeem all of this pathetic account.  As it is for most of us humans, hope abounds, and even when it doesn’t we like to focus on the “good news”.  We want our heroes to win and get the girl (or the guy); we want the good guys to win, and families to be reunited, and justice to be served.  So, I’ll get to that, and appropriately so.

Before I do, though, let me say that even though it’s been more than a week since that sermon and those initial thoughts on the nicely-wrapped, aesthetically pleasing package that is the Christmas story, I continue to struggle with this issue.  It remains unresolved in me, and disturbing, though I know the answer, and I can recite the prescribed catechism of self-healing theology.  I’m struggling.

I’m struggling to match the heart of the meaning and value of the good news, the Christmas story that clings to the crevices of my cynical soul, bringing the mystery of inexplicable tears to my eyes at its telling (I mean, who designed this whole thing with water falling from our eyes, right in the middle of our faces, anyway?!), with the practicalities of middle-class, Christmas hubbub in American suburbs, and rampant pain and suffering near and far.

I’ve been struggling to get comfortable with the “good news” as revealed by angels to a few scraggly shepherds a couple of bazillion years ago about a wet, dirty, and wrinkled baby born to teenagers in a barn in a tiny village in circumstances that can’t be more foreign in a place I’ve never seen.

I like babies.  They are good news.  Not many of them get those kinds of “savior” accolades before they’ve messed their first set of swaddling clothes, though.

BUT . . .

(To be continued . . . )

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