I read somewhere that in a survey to identify what people thought was the most obnoxious holiday or Christmas music, “The Little Drummer Boy” narrowly won out over “Silver Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” That kind of music is omnipresent in the stores and on the street corners near where I live.
Luke 1 and 2 are often described as “the Lukan infancy and childhood narratives”—the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood. That description is fine, but as Eugene Peterson has suggested, there is another way of framing the opening of Luke: these two chapters are a primer in prayer. Prayers saturate the first two chapters of Luke.
What an anomaly: while many Americans were gearing up for Christmas and singing the angels’ song of peace on earth, good will to all, the nation was considering the government practice of torture—or more precisely, how and why videotapes of the government’s harsh interrogation practices had been destroyed.
Though the liturgical calendar reminds us that it is Christmastide, a lovely 12-day season extending to Epiphany in January, you cannot live in this culture without experiencing how the air is let out of the holiday balloon on December 26. The Magi may not arrive in Bethlehem until January 6, but the culture abruptly drops the whole matter practically before Christmas Day is over.
"I love Christmas,” writes Bruce David Forbes. “And Christmas drives me crazy.” With that opening confession, he sets out to determine just how much of the holiday is real after all—whatever real means. The skimpy biblical accounts, decidedly pagan revelry, manufactured nostalgia and commercial overlay all raise his eyebrows.
All of the Spirit’s labor—the pruning of our imagination, the background work on our expectations—comes to fruition on Christmas Day, when we are brought into the Presence. The virgin who for nine months has been weaving the veil of the temple out of the material of her own body sits in stupefied and exhausted silence.
Once a year, having waited to the very end of December, my wife and I dress up. Some people wait a lifetime to start living, but fortunately for us, New Year’s Eve intervenes every year. With mortality staring us right in the face, we get around to that date we should have had months ago. Rexene looks absolutely stunning in a cocktail dress. (How many times does a pastor’s wife get to wear a cocktail dress?)
The glad song Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel functions like a lighted magnifying glass. It illumines, making possible the discernment of something that was there all the time, but difficult to see without aid. Mary sings of the whole new order of things that God is creating all around us, one in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich, who have unwisely filled up on so much that does not satisfy, are emptied so that they can have their real hungers met at last.
My neighborhood offers Christmas shoppers lots of help: the counters are full, and the windows have been elegantly displaying gift suggestions since mid-October. I am led to ponder the original gift that generated this phenomenon of Christmas—a small, quiet, intimate gift of love in the birth of a child.