Christmas is the moment of , the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter. - Archbishop Rowan Williams, Advent: A University Sermon, Open to Judgement: Sermons and AddressesIn a time of year our late capitalist culture transforms from from verbose longing for something new to silent nostalgia for an irretrievable past, it is sometimes a good thing to consider what, precisely, is this new thing God is doing in the Babe of Bethlehem over which we coo and weep in joy. Far from the schmaltzy Hallmark nonsense that swamps us like a tide of stupid and ugly, in the Incarnation God is doing something that should bring about both praise and fear. As we wait and watch, counting down the days on our Advent calendars and watching other shoppers at the nearest Big Box store with their worried looks and creased brows, we should recall to what end this baby is born.
I sometimes think we have forgotten that the broken corpse of Calvary should lie in the manger, rather than a swaddled baby. Not to revel in blood and death. Rather, because the New Thing that God is doing, coming to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, is nothing more or less than God demonstrating that love is not a feeling, faith is not thought, and freedom is most assuredly casting our lot in with others, submitting ourselves to the strictest discipline, to the point of offering up our very lives for others.
There is nothing cute or cuddly about the life Jesus will live. There is no peace or goodwill that follows in his wake. He knew that. He told his disciples that the world would hate them for his sake. He told his disciples they needed to be prepared to surrender their families, their fortunes, all the things they thought God considered valuable, if they wanted to follow him. When Maundy Thursday came around and they discovered he wasn't kidding, they ran off. Peter, like Judas, betrayed his master at a point when confessing solidarity with Jesus might well have cost him his life.
This time of year, as we gather our loved ones around us in our various family rituals, I think we numb ourselves to the reality that the birth for which we wait, the Coming for which we wait and watch is not some silent blessing, the still small voice that whispered to the prophet Jeremiah. The Gospels are clear enough that Jesus' birth brought terror and death to a world already overflowing with terror and death; consider the Slaughter of the Innocents in St. Matthew's Gospel (the first feast day after Christmas is just that; the second is the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, recounted in Acts). Jesus was born in a world filled with violence and hatred, terrorism and war, economic and social exploitation. He became a victim of these forces, winding up on a Roman crosstree the innocent scapegoat of a socio-political and religious establishment terrified of the promise he offered a people under Roman thumb. Jesus' Revolution was not what anyone in a position of authority wanted, so he ended up dead on trumped up charges.
That he had the last laugh, rising on the third day, confirming that the Kingdom he offered is not one of this world, yet is visible for us and with us, does not remove the blood and horror from the story. As we move through the weeks of Advent, we should prepare ourselves to look in the feeding trough and see not a pink cheeked baby sleeping peacefully; we should look and see the bloody, broken face of the man Jesus would become. Only then will we be waiting for the Jesus promised us in the Hebrew Scriptures; only then will we be ready to hear what the man Jesus will say to us; only then will we begin to understand what the baby whose birth we celebrate offers a hurting and broken world.
Peace? Only if we are willing to risk everything for it. Justice? Only if we are willing to suffer injustice in pursuit of it. Life? Only if we are willing to risk death for it. As Archbishop Williams states, over and over again, not only Jesus but the Hebrew prophets before him insist that it is only through a refiner's fire that we who hear and answer God's call and promise in Jesus become what God wants us to be. If we are not filled with fear this Advent that the new thing God in Christ is doing in our midst may well be what God always said it would be, then we aren't really waiting and watching for the coming of the Christ child promised by the prophets and attested in the Gospels.