Saturday, December 24, 2016

SURPRISED BY CHRISTMAS

The little village in a South American country through which I was driving one December day was swelteringly hot and dirty. The houses were mostly of adobe, and the people of the village were poor goat-herders, whose daily task was to wrestle out a living from the dry and desolate soil of the desert plain.

Everything around me spoke of struggle. Even the basic necessity of water could only be obtained by going to the village well, dropping a bucket into the deep round shaft dug into the ground, and then pulling it up using a rope and a pulley. The reward for this labor was a half a pail of water that both smelled and tasted strongly alkaline.

Even the air in that place refused to be too charitable with its refreshment. The air that we breathe ought to be equally abundant and vitalizing to all, but in that desert village, every breath only brought into my lungs air that felt too hot. Added to that disappointment, the scorching breeze that blew that day, instead of making the air more refreshing, only filled it with a fine dust. The dust in the air caused dirt to form on my face as the sweat rolled down from my forehead, and especially around my nostrils. My nose needed to work doubly hard to strain out any dirt before allowing the air to enter my lungs.

I was short of breath. I felt that I could not breathe. I was not getting adequate oxygen by breathing through my nose only, but because the air was so dirty, I was very hesitant to part my lips even just a little in order to draw in a deeper breath. I did not want to breathe in all of that dust.
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Then, as I neared the plaza in the middle of the town, I saw something that seemed entirely out of place in that God forsaken corner of the world. There, in the middle of such a bleak and depressing area, the townspeople had set up a most elaborate nativity scene. The word they use there for this is a pesebre. This pesebre had figures that were quite large and the display covered much of the area of the plaza. It had a great variety of animal figures, not just goats. Mary and Joseph were represented by finely carved figures. The same was true for the many angels and shepherds, and of course, the wise men – only three of them.

The scene before me took by surprise. “Oh, that’s right,” I heard myself say out loud, “It’s almost Christmas.” Up until that time the thought of Christmas had been far from my thinking. I grew up in the North Country, with its snow and freezing temperatures at Christmas time. To me, this nativity scene in the midst of the heat and the dust, all took on a rather surrealistic appearance. It seemed out of place in that poor, desert town. 

The Surrealism of Christmas

But then again, when one thinks about it, the whole concept of Christmas is a bit out of place. One could even say that Christmas itself is a little surrealistic. What is it, after all, that we are celebrating? To those of us who are audacious enough to believe that it is true, at Christmas we celebrate the birth, in human form, of the One who created the entire universe. Astounding as it may seem to some, we are celebrating the birth of One, born in the time of our own history, who himself existed long before that world into which he was born! We celebrate infinity being born into the finite. It is all beyond our comprehension.

“How is it possible,” we might rightly ask, “that Mary could give birth to the One who created her in the first place?” It is no wonder that the prophet Isaiah asked rhetorically, “Who has believed our report?” 

God’s Desire to be with His Creation

I will not deny that on many levels, the concept of Christmas seems surprising. – perhaps even absurd. Because of this, many people deny the reality of Christ’s birth. They may celebrate the holiday with no trouble, because, for most, Christmas has become largely a non-religious celebration of family and gifts. Perhaps it has become so because the concept of Christ’s birth is so far beyond our understanding.

Celebration needs an objective. For many, the point of celebrating something they do not understand and, if pressed to admit it, do not actually believe, seems a little hollow. Instead, they have made family the celebration. Christmas has become the grand occasion of the year because it is time to have the family all get together again.

I agree that family is good and worthy of celebration, but it is not when it steals celebration from the King of kings. 

God With Us

I got out of my car and took a few moments to walk around and consider the pesebre in the little Latin plaza. The incarnation – God made flesh. The King of the universe born as a man-child in a corner of the world that was perhaps more forsaken than the village in which I found the pesebre on that day. How could we dare to actually believe this to be true? It is surprising.

But then, on the other hand, once we come to know this King of kings, we may find that it is not so surprising that he would come to the world.

The God that we come to know in the Bible is one who creates out of a desire to express his love. Actually, we are able to understand a little of what it was like for God to have this desire to create. We, as humans, also possess some of this quality. We all have a spark of creativity in us. We cannot create something out of nothing as God did of course, but there is something within each one of us that wants to create. That is why we carve sculptures and make music and write poetry. That is why we take great care in designing and building our homes. That is why we keep our gardens so neat. In each of these things, we are expressing ourselves. In some ways, we even identify ourselves with what we create. We do not grow tired of working with the things that we really enjoy, but rather are refreshed by them. In many ways, the things that we do are expressions of who we are.

In much the same way, God, in his creation, expresses himself. He identifies himself with what he has created. And, more than with any other part of his creation, God identifies himself with man. “Let Us make man in Our image,” God said, “according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). 

Immanuel

Also for God, it was not only the act of creating that was enjoyable, but it is also enjoying what he created. God also enjoys the fruits of his creation. In our own attempts at creating, when we are pleased with how our craftsmanship turned out, we take great pleasure in our work. If we are gardeners, it is not only the work of the garden that we enjoy, but we also like to sit in the shade of our favorite tree and sip some iced tea. If we have written a piece of music that we particularly like, we take pleasure in playing it from time to time. We occasionally read our own poetry to no one but ourselves.

The fact is, we love to be with the things that we create. In much the same way, it has always been the desire of God to be with us - his creation. 

To the Least of Them

In the little village in Latin America, as I stood before the nativity scene in the plaza of the village, a gust of wind came and blew dirt all over the figures standing and kneeling there. “Even if all this is true,” I thought, “why did the Christ feel that he needed to come to earth into such humble circumstances? If a king, why not come as king?”

The truth is; that day too will come. We ask that question now because we do not completely understand the creative heart of God. Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah gives us some insight into why Christ came to live among the poor. To understand what Isaiah said is to understand the heart of God: 

For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15 emphasis added). 

God came in such a lowly state in order to show us that he is the savior not only the wealthy and the mighty, but also to the least of us. He is the savior and God of the most lowly of people.

As I watched the dust blow all over the figures in the pesebre, I thought of how susceptible we also are to the dust and grime of our daily existence in this world. We live in an existence where true peace seems only like a distant and hazy dream. To us, who still are looking and waiting for the perfection of the creation, God says this: 

“I have seen [your] ways, but I will heal [you]; I will lead [you] and restore comfort to [you] and to [your] mourners, creating the praise of the lips. Peace, peace to him who is far and to him who is near. I will heal him” (Isaiah 57:18-19). 

Although he is the Holy One, he came to associate himself with the least of us. This fact is more important than we sometimes understand. The message of Christmas was not only to those who live in positions of privilege, but it was also to the most humble of the earth. He came for these goat herders in that little Latin American town. He came for me.
 
He Came for Me
 
I am still surprised by Christmas. I am surprised that the God of the universe at one time could be found, having just been born out of the womb of a poor and humble teenage girl, and lying in a feeding manger of donkeys and sheep.

But at the same time, I think I can understand a little why, in that very moment, all of creation was rejoicing. In the miracle of the incarnation, the Creator had come! 

Suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:13-14).

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