I love Christmas. I am one of those eternally annoying people who begins singing along to Christmas radio stations before my birthday (November 14th) and I remain fueled almost entirely by peppermint mochas throughout December. The lady in the video below is my hero.
And yet, as I wholeheartedly throw myself into the kitschy joy of the secular Christmas season, I am somewhat convicted by this is. Each year, as I happily hang twinkle lights and merrily munch peppermint treats, I am also filled by a tremendous sense of not only Christmas cheer, but Christmas fear.
The light-up babies in plastic mangers perplex me. The half-inflated snowmen at once amuse and baffle me. The unashamedly corny songs on the radio cause me to laugh and, a little, lament.
Anyone who has read my blog over the past few years will be acquainted with my deep adoration for Good Friday. As a Christian, Easter is central to my life, and yet, I am most struck by the passion of Tenebrae. In the same way, I am most in awe of the miracle of Christmas in moments of stillness, solitude, and sorrow.
A year ago, I began to play advent services at my church in Scotland. I remember practicing one evening, alone in the sanctuary. The stained-glass windows, with their images of joy and victory, had been veiled in fabric and, with this, mystery. The only light was that which illuminated my hymnal. Outside the stone walls, the wind wuthered, chill and forbidding. Alone, shivering with cold and anticipation, I began to improvise on my favorite carol: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.”
I entreat you to pause in your daily activities. Turn off your lights, close your eyes, and listen to this carol.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, I love this carol because it fills me with fear. I don’t mean the kind of fear that sends me running for a light-switch or hiding under the covers, but the kind of fear which I believe that scripture commands: the fear that is the beginning of knowledge. We as a people have grown too chummy with God; we forget that, although He loves us intimately, the tiny baby in the manger is the living, eternal, all-glorious Word.
At Christmas, many—even many who are not practicing or professing Christians—presume to know God. They unwrap their dusty manger scenes and mail off their glittery Christmas cards. They sing absently along to covers of carols by equally-secular singers. This time of year, it seems that everyone knows Jesus or, at least, know vaguely of him.
And yet, it is not in concertized Christmas Eve services, sentimental greeting cards, or mass-produced mangers that we encounter and truly come to know Christ. Certainly, these may lead us to know of Him, but they do not really bring us to know Him. All the cheer in the world, although lovely and praiseworthy, cannot bring us to the enduring, year-long knowledge of Christ that is manifest in reverence, the awe and wonder of holy fear.
How tremulous for a matron to hold a newborn, but how terrifying for a Virgin to hold her Maker remade. How sweet to hear a healthy baby’s cry, but how sobering to encounter the “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” of the life-giver in death. How happy our hearts at the sight of the star, but how horrific the darkness without the true Sun.
Christmas is not merely about the gentleness of God become flesh, but of the gory glory of flesh redeemed by an all-powerful God. The Incarnation, drawing together these seeming extremes, is as fearful as it is wonderful, and I have to wonder how our celebrations would alter if we considered righteous fear as much as revelry’s cheer. I do not believe this would lead to despair but, instead, inspire in us a greater, truer, and more lasting awe toward the birth of the One who Himself gives rebirth, the one who became mortal flesh that we might be recreated according to His immortal pattern.
My breath catches in my throat as I pen these words. Again, I must exhale in the words of the Pslamist: How marvelous, how fearful. I cannot do better than to pause in my merriment and, for a few moments, keep silence.