Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All We Ask of Christmas

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD. (Psalm 27.4)

The Search

If we deconstruct The Nativity into two categories, one “Divine” and the other “Human,” dominant themes for each become apparent. The divine side is preoccupied with manifestation. God’s exquisite design is manifestly transmitted through supernatural media: angels everywhere, an astral phenomenon in the easterly sky, the unborn infant leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and her impromptu prophecy to Mary. There’s no mistaking that Something Big is underway—the Biggest Something there ever was or ever will be, the Big Something everyone’s waiting for. So God removes any possibility for doubt. It’s manifestly obvious to all who receive the good news: This Is It.

The manifestations are writ large in headlines, with quick summaries attached. Mary’s told how she’ll conceive God’s Son, and that’s pretty much it. The rest is hers to figure out. The same goes for Joseph. His angelic dream instructs him to stand by Mary, yet offers no tactics to deal with the situation’s many intricacies. The Magi see the Eastern Star and realize what it signifies. But it’s not much more than a road sign hung in the sky; there’s no address attached. Angels declare Christ’s birth to shepherds, hasten them to Bethlehem, and inform them what to look for. Yet they don’t provide precise directions to the stable. So virtually every human in the Christmas story responds to these manifestations by looking for answers and guidance. Their column header is “The Search.” And for those who undertake it, the months, weeks, and hours leading up to the final manifestation are full of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.”

It’s tempting to question why God chooses to make good on the promise of a Savior in ancient times. Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until we get the whole mass communication thing down, so this good news can spread virally? I think God’s got more than breaking news in mind. The ancients’ limitations immunize them from a curse we can’t seem shake. They’re not nearly as flippant about things that can’t be naturally or logically explained. Narrow understanding broadens their vision. Thin facts amplify their aptitude for thin places, where reason’s failure makes blind trust the only option. For them, “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” are unabashed confessions. Not knowing and feeling unsure don’t threaten them. Do they wish they’d been given more thorough directions? Probably. But since so much of their lives proceeds without explanation, they avoid the modern pitfall of procrastinating until every detail is explicitly defined and every possibility considered. (We theorize. They theologize.)

Seeing Christ

To illustrate the magnitude of differences between their era and ours, let’s run a few likely scenarios if God delayed Christ’s birth for our time. If we were Mary’s parents and knew her to be a truthful child, we’d still question why the angel told her to name the Child “Jesus,” but left no further instructions. If we were Joseph’s friends, we’d urge him to hold out for more information before moving too hastily. If we were the Magi’s colleagues, we’d laugh at the idea of trusting a star’s trajectory to guide them to Christ’s birthplace. If we were shepherds who missed the angelic concert, we’d tell the others they were crazy to go on a wild chase and risk getting fired. Those would be our gut reactions.

With more thought, we’d blow their stories to pieces. Hang on, Mary: Isaiah says the Messiah will be called “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.” Hang on, Joseph: The Law says a man whose fiancée gets pregnant should put her to death. Hang on, Magi: The star rises in the East; Palestine is west. Hang on, shepherds: Israel’s Savior will come as a King, not a poor Infant in a manger. Maybe some register these objections. Yet with so few facts littering the searchers’ lives, these arguments carry less weight for them than they would for us.

Strange and inexplicable events inspire ancient minds to suspect divine activity. While their manifestations offer no advice, the searchers are all given the Child’s true identity. Mary’s told He’s God’s Son. Joseph learns He’ll be the Savior. The Magi’s star signifies He’s Israel’s King. The shepherds hear He’s Christ the Lord. That’s all they need to set off on their search, because all they want is to look on the Redeemer’s face. Just knowing Who He is drives their belief they will see Him. And they believe seeing Him will enable them to see everything differently.

Asking to See

Sight causes modern minds to believe. Ancient thought insists belief leads to sight. Psalm 27 begins with David declaring belief: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid… Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though wars rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (v1,3) Then, in verse 4, we find him asking to see: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD.” Since David knows Whom he’s looking for, he knows exactly what he longs to see—the beauty of the LORD.

Surely by this stage in our Advent pilgrimage we have no doubt Whom we’re seeking—God’s Son, our Savior, Israel’s King, Christ the Lord, our Light and our Salvation. We’re long past fearing “I don’t know” and feeling threatened by “I’m not sure.” Argument’s armies and warring opinions can’t shake our belief we’ll arrive at the manger. Since that’s all we need to know, all we ask of Christmas is one thing: to behold the beauty of the Lord. Let those who assert that the Nativity is a myth live with their doubts. We’re not seeking literalism; we’re searching for Light. Let those who quibble with implausibility feed their addiction; we crave impossibility. We believe we will see Christ’s beauty, and that will forever change how we see. Isaiah 40.5 promises, “The glory of the LORD will be revealed.” We hazard our way to Bethlehem, driven by certainty we’ll find the impossible beauty awaiting us there. To behold it—that’s all we ask.

Impossibly Beautiful Child, conceive anew in us profound belief that leads us to sight. May these final days of Advent be fueled with determination to behold You. Draw all of us to the manger, eager to be astonished and changed. Amen.

One thought drives us to Bethlehem: to behold the beauty of the Lord.

Postscript: “Come Darkness, Come Light”

This reprises a video I made for an Advent post last year. Yet I think it speaks to the desire to see that drives our journey. I trust you’ll enjoy it.


Britt said...

Who sings the song in the video? It is beautiful.

Tim said...

That's Mary Chapin Carpenter. It's one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs!

Blessings, dear Britt,