The Real Story of Christmas – by Greg Albrecht
Many customs and traditions that surround Christmas are flights of fancy promising unrealistic escape from the here-and-now into a never-Neverland of endless fun, frivolity and feasting. But the real story of Christmas is far from an idyllic fantasy filled with “stuff and fluff.” The real Christmas story is about the pits, foxholes and dark places of our lives – to which our Savior comes, to be with us and one of us. The real story of Christmas is that Jesus comes to us – he joins us where we are.
Jesus does not rapture us away to “somewhere over the rainbow.” Matthew 2:13-23 tells us the story of a murderous despot named Herod. Threatened by rumors of a newly born King of the Jews whom he worried might take that title from him, Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus.
An angel warned Joseph, so in order to escape the wrath of Herod, Mary, Joseph and Jesus became homeless refugees and immigrants in Egypt. Egypt – of all places for a Jewish family to seek safety! What an irony! Jesus – the newborn King of the Jews found sanctuary in Egypt, the Old Testament symbol of brutal oppression and bondage.
Unaware that the newborn King of the Jews was long gone, Herod killed all the boys in and around Bethlehem under the age of two, in what history has come to call “the slaughter of the innocents.” This massacre of young children is “Joy to the World”? This is the quaint and peaceful scene of “Silent Night”?
The stage setting for the first Christmas includes the bloodletting of innocents, the cries of mothers for their dead babies and the cries of fathers who could not adequately provide for or protect their families.
The world into which Jesus came was not and is not a Hallmark-card Christmas where everyone is healthy, prosperous, well-nourished, living in beautiful homes, giving lavish gifts, gathered around long tables and enjoying sumptuous Christmas feasts.
The world to which Jesus came and still comes is not about perfect families where everyone gets along, with no acrimony or arguments – it’s not a world where there is no oppression, no impoverishment, no disease and no heartache.
Jesus came to the weary, dirt-poor, ghetto-like world of Bethlehem where political and religious tyrants, then and now, kill and abuse out of lust for power. Bethlehem was a suburb of Jerusalem – but it wasn’t a peaceful, landscaped and well-manicured, two cars parked in every driveway, gated suburban community.
Jesus came to be one of us, to join us in a world overwhelmed by oppression and slavery, both physically and spiritually.
It was business and religion as usual that first Christmas – corrupt, money-hungry government and big-business religion finding new ways to gouge more money out of those they were ostensibly sworn to protect and serve.
Jesus came to a world in need of a Savior, not to a world of comfort and ease where there are no cares, no needs, no sickness, no disease, no hunger, no abuse and no tears.
The real world of the first Christmas, and of every Christmas since, is not a light and fluffy pseudo-Fantasyland – but rather a tough, difficult and even painful world.
This Christmas of 2017, citizens of planet earth, both Christ-followers and those who are not, are enduring painful and tough times. Yes, in such a world we should all sing “Joy to the World” because the Savior has come and we should sing “Silent Night” for it was a holy night when God became incarnate, coming to join us in the muck and mire of our lives.
We’re filled with joy because our Savior has come, but we also realize that our Savior’s arrival in the here-and-now does not mean that trouble and suffering will evaporate in a cloud of pixie dust. The cradle at Bethlehem begins the journey to the Cross outside of Jerusalem.
Because the focus of Christmas is on stuff and fluff, on chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, for many, this Christmas will once again increase depression, anxiety and fear.
- People who are already depressed will get more depressed as they realize that there is no way their Christmas will ever measure up to a Hallmark-card Christmas or a dream vacation to Disney World.
- Grief will intensify for those who lost loved ones over the course of the last 12 months as parties and family reunions will remind them of who and what they have lost.
- Senior citizens living alone, some of them in senior homes, will come face to face with the brutal fact that family will not grace their little shrunken world of four walls this Christmas.
When the focus of Christmas is about stuff and fluff, the primary wish of many is to just make it through December.
For almost 50 years, the late Merle Haggard has been one of my favorite country-and-western recording artists. Often called “the poet of the common man,” Merle’s songs were meaningful ballads about the ups and downs of life as it is lived. Merle recorded “If We Make It Through December” back in 1973, when unemployment and inflation were at record highs, when North America was struggling though another recession. It’s a song about a father who is filled with guilt over his inability to buy his daughter “some Christmas cheer.”
Christmas can include gifts and Christmas dinner with family and friends. But Christmas can and often does include unemployment, high taxes, the homeless, the poor, immigrants and refugees. The real Christmas, the first Christmas, is about mothers crying over their dead babies and fathers crying because they can’t provide for their children as they would like. The real Christmas story includes tyrants whose bloodlust seems to never end. The real Christmas story is about Jesus, our Savior who doesn’t arrive in our lives with a magic wand to solve our earthly pain and problems – he doesn’t take us away from the storm but promises to be with us during the storm and to take us safely to the other side – his kingdom, peace and rest.
The majority of those who observe Christmas anticipate a fantasy dream of Santa Claus who is in the business of rewards and punishment. But a gift premised on earning or deserving that gift is not really a gift at all – it’s a paycheck, an act of reciprocity for services rendered.
A true gift is a one-sided, lopsided transaction, which is of course exactly the nature of the Greatest Gift of Jesus, God in the flesh. Jesus is our pure Gift, the gift of God’s undeserved and unearned grace, a light shining on all those who dwell in darkness, a Savior for the sick, impoverished, abused and heartbroken. Like any real gift, Jesus arrives as a grand and glorious surprise, a Savior to all of us, and God knows we don’t deserve Him.
Jesus did not relate to the lepers and the prostitutes and the tax collectors on the basis of what they were able to bring to his table, but rather on the basis of who he was and is and the gifts he brought to their tables. Jesus did not come with gifts only for those who were nice while denying the naughty as in “He’s making a list/He’s checking it twice/He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice/Santa Claus is coming to town.”
Jesus was embraced and welcomed by the “naughty” and he was rejected, despised and eventually crucified by the “nice.” Herod, the governmental authority, was not able to kill the baby Jesus but eventually, after their devious plots and schemes, the “nice” religious authorities crucified him.
Humanity, then and now, opts for stuff and fluff over the grace of God. Humanity, then and now, would rather live in a fantasy land where people are deluded into thinking they can pay their spiritual bills by their own efforts, attempting to please and appease a god they believe to be angry and upset than embrace the grace of God in the person of Jesus.
Humanity would rather opt for the endless pursuit of stuff and fluff rather than fully embrace the grace, spiritual assurance and deliverance that our Savior is joining us, as one of us, to be with us now and forever.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Jesus, our Lord and Savior, will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus will supply all of our needs according to his glorious riches (Philippians 4:19) and add all things we need as we seek his kingdom (Matthew 6:33).
Merry Christmas to you and yours! God is with us, he is joining us, no matter what our circumstances, and he will never leave us!
In our Savior’s name,
Friend and Partner Letter from December 2017