A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
You can recognize all these. Perhaps you barely even had to read them, they’re so familiar. They make us grin, they call forth memories, and they evoke emotions. Your heart is instantly swept away into another land, full of adventure, danger, and wonder. But very little of that is because of them. Just those sentences themselves aren’t much. There’s no elegant structure here. There’s no eloquent prose. In fact, they all consist almost entirely of single-syllable words! They’re not stories, they’re not chapters, and they’re barely even full sentences. Taken simply as words by themselves, they have little power.
No, we love them because they are beginnings. We love them because they herald what is coming next.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)
And I think this is how we should love Christmas as well. Of course, most people do enjoy Christmas. Ask most people on the street, and — unless they are the living incarnation of Scrooge or the Grinch himself — they’ll smile and agree that it’s one of the most wonderful times of the year.
His soft little hands stretched open, reaching for the warmth of His mother. Red and wrinkled, His small body was wrapped snugly, safe from the bitter winter air.
And as Christians we delight in Christmas as well. Not only for the gifts, or the shimmering lights, or the glad carols, but for the miracle at Bethlehem.
His chest rose, His tiny mouth opening wide in a quiet yawn of content. Sleep gently shut His eyes, and He snuggled closer to His mother. The flickering lamp-light outlined His face, as Mary brushed her finger across His brow, looking in wonder at this sleeping infant. Joseph wrapped his arms protectively around them both, and they rested in the quiet joy of the moment. Soon enough the shepherds would appear — their sleepy-eyes now wide with the shock of that blazing glory — but for now it was just the three of them. “Jesus.” She whispered the name, as she felt His breath close to her chest, and rested in the silent night about them.
We adore the silent night. We sing about the angels. We delight in the shepherds, and in the gifts, and in the manger, and in the farm-yard animals, and in all the absolute sweetness that Jesus is. And even culture likes baby Jesus a bit. He’s cute, He’s sweet, and His messengers tell of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
And all of this is true. But I think we can run into trouble by loving Christmas. That is, if we love just Christmas. If we love only baby Jesus.
Because Christmas is not a complete story in of itself.
His hands stretched open, forced flat as the cruel nails are driven deeper, deeper into His flesh. Red with blood, bruised and beaten, His body throbs with pain. The splintered wood tears again into what remains of His back, stripped of skin and lacerated into a bloody pulp.
Christmas is beautiful not because it stands by itself. Christmas is beautiful because it is a beginning of a beautiful, horrifying, amazing story.
His chest heaves, as He struggles for every breath of air. Even the darkness — the unnatural night of a horrified sun — gives no rest from this, as all the guilt and the pain and the sin of all the world is poured upon Him. He is naked, open, unprotected. His enemies mock Him, curse Him, throw His words in His face. Soon enough they would have their victory — His body broken and forgotten, handed over to some stranger — but for now they exult in His shame. “Why, why have you abandoned me?” He screams in agony to the heavens, but the sky is silent. “Jesus.” The few faithful followers whisper in pain and grief, as He breathes His last, and falls silent.
Christmas wouldn’t be so wonderful if nothing followed it. Just as the other beginnings would mean nothing if we never saved the galaxy, never destroyed the ring, never went to an other world, so Christmas would be small. If this was just some story about some virgin birth, some scared shepherds, and some smart rich men — and nothing more — then it would be a nice story. But not incredibly important. Not incredibly memorable.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…
For God so loved the world…
Christmas is beautiful because it heralds what will come next. The wonder of Christmas is not only that God came that night, but rather that God came, planning and knowing full well what He would endure thirty-three years from then. The miracle is not so much that God was born as a baby, but that God died as a man.
And this is what often gets overlooked in Christmas. Do we realize that this little baby is lying here in a wooden manger, solely so that He could be brutally killed on a wooden cross? Do we recognize that peace on earth was only won through Him taking the punishment for the earth? That the goodwill towards men is show in Him dying for the sins of mankind?
Yes, we should come and adore this baby in the stable, but we should adore Him for what He is going to do. Yes, sing “Away in the Manger”, but don’t forget to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” And yet, we can’t stop there either. Even Calvary isn’t the whole story. No, not that wretched hill, nor even the empty grave is the end; even as wonderful, and as amazing, and as unthinkable as they both are.
They aren’t the end of the story.
His hands stretched wide, in victory over all. His body shines brighter than the sun, clothed in a vesture dipped in blood, written upon it KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
Christmas is not just beautiful for itself. Christmas is stunning, amazing, unthinkable, because of the story it begins. The most wondrous, insane, glorious story ever told.
From His mouth will go a sharp, two-edge sword, and on His head there will sit many crowns. There shall be no more sun, for He will shine forth all the light that will ever be needed. The twenty-four elders will fall down before Him, and proclaim “You are worthy! Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power and might, be unto our God forever and ever.” (Rev 5:12, 7:12) He has conquered over all. He has redeemed His people. He has wiped away all the pain of death. He proclaims, “I make all things new. It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 21:5, 6) Soon enough we shall ever be with the Lord, but for now we comfort ourselves with these promises. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” we pray, proclaiming the Gospel with every breath, waiting for death to be silenced, swallowed up in victory.
So delight in Christmas this year. Sing carols, hug family members, watch those old favorites, lick the cookie-dough off the spoon, and laugh with loved ones. Celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ arrival — the steady faith of Joseph and Mary, God’s use of heathen kings to fulfill prophecies, the dark night suddenly bursting into the radiance of thousands of angels — and be amazed by God’s great gift.
But remember not only what that one night was, but what that one night was going to do to history, and will do in eternity.
Be filled with joy for Christmas, and be filled with thankfulness for what Christmas was meant to do.