Emmanuel, God With Us

I have a friend who had to make it clear to the family she married into, that, “for me Christmas and Easter are religious holidays, and I must observe them so.” And she usually spends Christmas, Holy Week and Easter Day in a monastery (feasting and singing, sure, but praying, too) and visits family afterward.

I’m a bit impatient when people sigh about Christmas being commercialized. You don’t have to participate in the commercialization of Christmas! You can keep a holy Advent in your home, a simple yet magical Christmas Day, a Christmas week of fun, feasting, giving, loving, charity, volunteering, music and silliness without once engaging the Commercial Culture unless you’ve forgotten something at the grocery store and have to endure Frosty the Snowman over the intercom. But, let that moment pour upon you like a blessing: this is the Culture you don’t have to embrace.

Winter Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, Denis van Alsloot, 1616, detail

I think part of my friend’s insistence on a religious Christmas is her acknowledgment that the dark side of the Incarnation and Resurrection demand careful observance, thoughtfulness, and gravity. The frenetic consumer culture conspires against reflection, as if the culture itself is a living organism fighting for dominance against thinking. But what happens when you just go for the glitter and not seek the real shadows behind the fake lights? At the end you’re left with a handful of crumpled tinsel, and no discernible growth or truth to carry into the dark times ahead.

The very story of Christmas is dark. Mary and Joseph, already fraught in a situation full of tension, are forced to participate in a census carried on by oppressive occupiers known for cruelty, corruption, and bullying. The town is so crowded, there’s no comfortable place for the pregnant girl about to deliver her child, so the couple settle for an animal’s hut or cave, neither clean nor pretty. Meanwhile, the local king, a paranoid maniac, orders the massacre of all the male children under the age of two in a savage act of terror. The mother and father escape, carrying with their child the guilt of survival.

While the slaughter of the innocents may not be historically accurate, this story makes the nativity truer than the happily-ever-after fairy-tale quality that a purely happy Christmas offers. Jesus entered a real world, like ours, where children are poor, malnourished, enslaved, and poisoned by greed’s numbing exploitations. Taking the Nativity story out of the grim contexts in order to make it pretty, defeats the purpose of the Incarnation.

Winter Landscape in the Foret de Soignes with Flight into Egypt, Denis van Alsloot, 1616

2 Responses to “Emmanuel, God With Us”

  1. mrsmetaphor Says:

    This piece was a much needed drink of water for a thirsty traveller. thank you!!

  2. Chris Says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you!

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