“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
We are now close to the climax of the sacred drama of God’s coming. Who shall stand when he appears? Mary’s words at the coming of her son describe what it is always like when God comes. The mighty are cast down and the lowly are raised up. The hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Yet when Santa comes, it is the rich whose kids get most of the toys. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Maybe it’s time to change the date of Christmas. How about February 4th?
Have you talked to your Jewish friends about how much they detest the Christmas ballyhoo? Have you talked to them about how hard it is to be faithful when their children wonder why they don’t get presents or decorate Christmas trees? Some of my Jewish friends leave town at this time of the year for a place where Christmas isn’t in their face. Can you imagine what it feels like?
It must be very hard to take seriously the god of Christmas shopping, when your experience of God has been exile and persecution and holocaust. When your image of God is forged in the waters of the Red Sea and in the deserts of Sinai, the pagan god of Christmas must remind you of the golden calves of Canaan. The sense of alienation felt by our Jewish brothers and sisters at this time reminds us that the god of Santa Claus is very far from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They remind us that the god of Christmas present is modeled more on the golden calf, the idol of greed, than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Glory to God in the highest,” sang the angels. “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”, spoke the prophet. In our culture, “Glory” has been reduced to the glitter of angel dust. Martin Luther King knew what glory was. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” he preached one night. The next day he was dead on a hotel balcony in Memphis.
“Glory to God in the highest.” When God comes, the world is turned upside down and it hurts.
As we were packing up work for the holiday, a Jewish colleague asked me: “So what do Christians do the day after Christmas? Take their presents back to the store?” Ouch!
So “What do Christians do the day after Christmas?”
My answer to the friend at work was “We celebrate the feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.” It’s true. December 26th is the Feast of Stephen – stoned to death in the Jerusalem for proclaiming the Gospel. As he was brought to trial, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, he looked into heaven and saw the glory of God. And they dragged him out and stoned him to death. Stephen’s eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. And it doesn’t end there. December 28th we keep the festival of the Holy Innocents, all those babies who were killed by Herod as he tried to protect his throne from the coming Messiah. “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Some years ago, Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book with the title, “The Crucified God.” For Moltmann the cross is always part of the eternal character of God. When God comes, he comes in the shape of the cross. God comes as martyr. Stable and cross are for ever linked in the heart of God. The cross was born in the manger.
There is an icon of Mary carrying the child Jesus. The shoe has fallen off his foot. His foot is trembling because he has seen the signs of his passion already in the heavens. The prince of martyrs was born in the stable. Where else could he be born and the world still see the glory of the crucified God? “Those who dress in fine clothes are in kings’ houses,” said Jesus. “He came into the world, and the world was made by him, but the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” That is the character of the God who comes to be crucified. “We have beheld his glory.” That is not angel dust. That is mystery. That is the source of joy.
Our Celebration of Christmas is embedded in the celebration of the martyrs. That is the holy wisdom that puts light years between our crucified God and the pagan god of the midwinter greed-fest.
About the year A.D. 106 Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested. He had been Bishop for about forty years of a Diocese that, tradition says, was founded by Peter. We aren’t sure why Ignatius was arrested by the power of Rome. But he must have been seen as a significant threat to the gods of Rome because he was marched off across Asia Minor so that he could be fed to the lions as part of the public entertainment in the Roman circus. On the way, Ignatius and his guards stopped over in Smyrna – modern Izmir- on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Such was his renown, and such was the love of the churches of Asia Minor for Ignatius that they sent representatives to him in Smyrna. In return, Ignatius wrote letters of gratitude and encouragement to these churches and their bishops. Some of these still survive today and give us a glimpse of what made the faith of Ignatius so dangerous to Rome.
To the church at Ephesus, just 40 miles down the road from Smyrna, Ignatius writes one of the most beautiful paragraphs surviving from the age of martyrs.
He writes: “Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her child-bearing and so was the death of the Lord. All these trumpet-tongued secrets were conceived in the deep silence of God…”
In the face of his death, Ignatius had already seen the glory of the crucified God. He already knew that the world had been met by a power that was beyond the world’s ability to contain or comprehend. Ignatius and the church had already discovered a seditious power that overpowers every power in the universe. When God comes, the gods of Rome tremble because their power is subverted by the freedom of the King above all kings and the Lord above all lords. When God bursts into the world, even the threat of death has no power over life. Ignatius went with joy to the circus because he knew he was sharing in the mission that had been conceived from all eternity in the deep silence of God. All the majesty and power of the state were like dust before the wind at the coming of the Lord of life and history. Ignatius and his church knew that to be the “glory of God.” That is a God worth waiting for. That is a God people die for.