This is my Greenville News column for this week. Merry Christmas dear readers!
We have these little stars that cover some of the bulbs on the Christmas tree. Shining in the dark they cover the tree in tiny representations of the Christmas star. However, as the kids know well, the pretty, spiky stars fall off the bulbs and sometimes lie on the ground, where bare feet contact the stars, loud screams are heard, and children (and parents) are seen hopping about and nursing puncture wounds.
Christmas trees are also more than beautiful. Real trees ultimately shed needles and weep resin and before you can sing For Auld Lang Syne, they’re off to the landfill, or the lake to serve as cover for Bass. But worst of all, trees can be a bit flammable. I always chuckle at old movies, in which the tree is decorated with burning candles and left alone. Probably a bad idea, especially in the days before fire alarms, fire extinguishers and 911.
But in some ways, both of these things are illustrations of some foundational truths of Christmas. We have forgotten, to our spiritual poverty, that Christmas is sharp and piercing. And Christmas is a conflagration.
It’s beautiful, and make no mistake. The story, on the surface, is a simple child’s tale of a baby, poor parents and exotic lands, with stars and angels and kings. And it is all that! But it’s more. Old Herod knew it, as he searched for the infant king and murdered the innocents in an attempt to stop a coming King greater than himself. Shepherds knew it, abandoning their sheep to danger after the angels told them to see their deliverer. Wise men knew it. They brought no toys, no soft blankets, no Baby Einstein tapes or learning blocks. They brought a small child the tributes given to kings, including spices for His burial. They saw forward to a darker day.
Like our ornaments, the man Jesus was sharp and piercing. Our culture remembers His words about kindness and love, about the poor and humility. Our culture forgets that if He had been walking and teaching incarnate today, He would have called out everyone for our hypocrisy, irreverence, disregard for the holy; for our greed, lies, idolatry and immorality. He would have been our friend, if we would have him. But not without hard words, for his goal was never to soothe men’s egos, but to save men’s souls. His words penetrated, as He called all men and women sinners and claimed He was the only way to God. Words like that don’t earn many followers in the halls of power and fame. Those words, like our ornaments, cut deeply even though they’re part of the beautiful whole.
Ultimately, the sweet baby born at Christmas would anger others so much that His sharp words, His rapier ideas, His piercing and undeniable identity would make others pierce him. With thorns and nails and spear. That’s where the beauty of Christmas finds its culmination, as the lovely infant becomes the lovely sacrifice and lover of all mankind.
But the trees? He became a conflagration as well. Christmas didn’t end with the manger, or the Magi, or the trip to Egypt. It went on as Jesus grew and became a man, as He taught His disciples and followers and as His mission and ministry became evident. And after the piercing one was pierced, after his fire burned away the power of sin and death and lifted him up, after he went back to the Father, the fire went on.
Ignited in the manger and fueled by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, by the hope of forgiveness and redemption for even the worst, and eternal worth for even the least, the fire roared across the world, melting the icy, dying hearts of ancient empires. The fire burns on today.
We can try to blunt the sharp points and edges of Christmas with mind numbing lights and colors, gifts and parties. We can try to smother the fire with Holiday Trees and Winter Festivals, with Santa, Elves, parties and snow.
But be careful where you step. And be careful of the flames. For Christmas is the beginning of the wounds and the fire that transformed, and transforms, as nothing ever did.