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Christmas, Handle With Care!

Once upon a time back in those prehistoric days before Facebook, around Thanksgiving we would get the names for our annual family gift exchange. As proof that we are truly talking about the Dark Ages, often this critical information was hand-delivered by Postal Service carrier rather than Snapchat or Instagram. The prime benefit of course, was that you could read the news for yourself rather than being forced to wait for a chance to commandeer the next available teenager to open the app on that smart phone that tends to make you feel rather dumb. But upon reading that list of fairly detailed imperatives from my mother-in-law, we would enter into the holiday gift-buying season armed with the knowledge of our responsibility to be a true blessing to that second-cousin-twice-removed who had against all odds once again been mysteriously assigned to us for the thirteenth consecutive year. From that moment until our clan gathered at the appointed time around the Christmas dinner table to commence with a proper family interrogation of the usual suspects, we set out to do our best. While we usually began our Quest for the Perfect Gift by comparison-shopping at the officially stated dollar limit, I will freely confess that by the end of the season we were usually willing to multiply that baseline price limit by a factor of ten just to avoid a regretful case of Post-Nativity Depression after all of our family gifts had been opened. Perhaps you will already know why we were always willing to fudge the rules. For when it comes to annual family gift exchanges, the only safe course of action is to recognize that there are no rules! If you’ve been part of the family long enough to know how things really work, by now you probably also know that Christmas with your relatives is definitely not for the faint of heart. So like they say about those apocryphal French restaurants, if you really have to ask how much all of it should cost, be advised in advance that you can’t afford it.

Naturally, we also know this isn’t quite right. And given this fact, most of the time we feel duty-bound to protect Christmas from ourselves because nothing this significant should ever be left to the imagination of people who actually use Jello molds. So I laughed aloud one Christmas when a very weary postal carrier showed up on our doorstep lugging a rather stout and ominously labeled box. It was encouragingly big. It was also magnificently heavy. Best of all, it actually seemed to suggest that it was containing contents of priceless value. You could just tell. Or actually, I should say, the packaging itself made that fact perfectly clear. “Careful, fragile,” read the bold print message lovingly scrawled across the top and sides of the box, “Christmas, handle with care!”

I’m trying, I really am. But let me also be honest enough to admit that this has never exactly been easy or convenient. Perhaps a moment of reflection will make clear why this is so. By now, of course, we have all been on a month-long journey to celebrate that most famous of all babies and His unexpected birth in Bethlehem. And while we all more or less seem to know the traditional fashion by which babies arrive, I’m not really sure that any of what we have heard this Advent resembles the usual script. Strictly speaking, the Story we have been remembering on our way to Bethlehem will always remain in some sense, inconceivable. If you have ever spent much quality time with your average fourteen or fifteen year old, then you may have at least some sense of what Heaven would be up against. That a Jewish teenager named Mary could have any way of knowing enough about the nine months of pregnancy that lay ahead of her to have given what the doctor calls informed consent is probably out of the question. At her age, what could she have truly known about swollen ankles and midnight cravings? And even if she could fathom all of the changes that would take place within her body, what could she have said to regain the trust of the righteous man she had disappointed or quiet the coarse gossip of her snickering neighbors? If Mary entered her first trimester little more than an innocent girl, no doubt the hard facts of that exquisitely unexpected and unplanned pregnancy made her old before her time. And presumably, none of this would have been on her Christmas list were she to have known to make one.

Our Advent journey is now almost complete, so it seems right to take stock of what we have learned in the centuries that have slipped past beyond the day that young Palestinian peasant girl first learned that she was in a family way. That the child she would bear was truly her own flesh and blood announces that there will be nothing essential to human experience that Jesus will not understand. But that the young girl was also impossibly pregnant by the Holy Spirit also says that we are dealing with a God crazy in love with every last one of us. So when we name her the Virgin Mary, we are admitting that there was no question that everybody thought that she was a good girl right up to the time God chose to get involved. But when we name her son the Christ, we are also confessing that we cannot live without the holiness of God that seeks to invade the very world that we have been more or less attempting to manage on our own terms. Maybe this is one of those most needed of Gifts that we never would have known to request for ourselves.

In the end, the Gospel storytellers seem to agree on all of the basic facts of life, both His and ours. Messiah does indeed come uninvited and unexpected, and at times His very presence among us will remain uncomfortably inexplicable. So this Advent you may get some idea what a mess we have been in as you watch God smuggle a divine Son into the world inside the womb of an unwed mother. You may also get some idea what a mess we have made when you discover that the Son of God is born among the homeless poor taking shelter in a livestock feedlot. We might always face at least some confusion regarding the name of the true Father on the birth certificate issued in Bethlehem. But you know what to sing at Christmas: Unto us a Son has been given.

It figures. Somehow it all seems to make sense. Doing all of our business as usual does not actually save anyone, and the salvation that God does give often turns out to be the complete ruin of much that we have known. But before you make a final determination as to whether or not this is the kind of Christmas that you actually wish to receive, look again at the infant born long ago in that cattle stall. “In Him,” insists the Apostle Paul, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things.”

Yes, I know that a Gift like that will result in some significant disruption and displacement in our well planned and comparatively comfortable lives. But then again, Christmas has never been about what we could get out of God. In the end, don’t you suppose that Christmas is instead about whether or not God will at long last finally get from us what actually and rightly belongs to God: Our worship, our love, and our lives?

Come to think of it, that just might be the start of a great Christmas list.

Jeff Crosno