The Battle that is Christmas

History brings us many touching stories about Christmas. How foe became friend; how battles ceased while combatants met across trenches and sang carols. There are legends of miracles and wonders, and of course, the story of the nativity itself when eternity burst onto a nowhere town in the middle of a nowhere country.

But on the whole, life and all its suffering goes on during Christmas, free of miracles. The pain of this life is unrelenting. In wars across the globe men, women and children die and are maimed. Murders and rapes take no holiday break, though they seem a little more terrible for their timing. Accidents rob families of their dear ones, often on the busy highways of Christmas and Christmas Eve. And disease takes young and old.

I remember being a young resident physician and helping to care for a child who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome one Christmas morning. He lay on the sterile white sheet of a vast room, surrounded by women and men who were strangers. I thought how odd that there was this green light of the heart monitor, its line flat, and the red light of the oxygen probe; traditional holiday colors. He should have been watching the lights of his first tree, playing with paper from his first gifts. There was no Christmas magic for that family.

Just a few days ago I walked a woman to the bed where here husband had just died and felt the sobs shudder through her as a lifetime together ended right before Christmas. And there have been others, at our hospital and elsewhere. Later, I wanted to say “What Lord, you couldn’t wait until after the New Year?”

But I guess he couldn’t. And in fact, it isn’t that God takes lives or engineers our trouble. We are just mortal. We are just constrained by our bodies, fallible and weak; we are limited by a fixed number of heartbeats, though we do not know the formula to calculate their end-point. And we live in a world of loss and pain; worse, in a world of great uncertainty, where we can see only from second to second what is happening to us.

Amazing as it is, that pain is the point of Christmas; or one of the points. Of course, I’m always leery of the way people give me the “real meaning of Christmas”. It so easily turns sanctimonious. The joy of buying gifts is branded materialism; the joy of receiving gifts is termed greed; the pleasures of trees and lights and parties are decried as distractions from “the reason for the season”. Christmas is a time of enormous spiritual “one-upsmanship”. So I just want to suggest another way to look at it. And it is, in a way, selfish. Having seen enough pain, having built up so much love for so many, I need some hope.

For my peace and sanity, I try and remember that Christmas isn’t just about redemption from our sins. That’s the stock answer and a good one. But Jesus also came to give us a reliable way out of this morass of earth. He came to free us from more than our lust and greed, our drunkenness and idolatry. He came to shatter the chains of our mortality. He came to heal our wounds, in this life partly, in the next life fully.

In a nutshell, Christmas was the time when the Creator, the holiest of Heaven, landed on earth to break the occupation of Satan. In a masterful deception akin to the ruses used by the Allies in Europe, he came incognito. And in a way equally akin to a scene from warfare, he ended up like a medic, crawling through our mud, muck and blood to drag us out of harm’s way and into eternity. Forgoing divine, distant safety, he shared our sorrows. Immanuel, God with us in all our misery, he lived from infancy to adulthood to comfort us and give us life after life.

Christmas reminds us that Christ came to save us from our sins, certainly, but from a lot more. He came in person to show us how love looked in person, not in abstract. And he came to open a direct, accessible path to a place where all pain will be erased and where Christmas celebrations and reunions will never be tainted by loss again.

In the midst of this life’s battles, that ‘meaning of Christmas’ gives me some hope.

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