By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
The story of the three wise men is almost always told after Christmas. Liturgical Christians celebrate Epiphany, that day recognized as the one where the wise men finally arrive at Bethlehem. Christians of all backgrounds tend to celebrate the visit and all of its implications in the days following the celebration of the Nativity. Though we are almost two weeks away from Epiphany, I can’t help but think ahead to the wise men’s journey. The great poet T.S. Eliot retold the story in his great poem, “The Coming of the Magi.” The poem’s opening lines strikes a deep chord.
‘A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
The long journey is not simply the hard road travelled by the Magi all the way to Bethlehem. (I commend the entire poem to you; it is short and easy to digest.) The long journey, and the cold coming, are our own lives. We find our world tossed upside down. I’m not just talking about politics, though the last couple of weeks in Washington have been as clear an example as ever of our deep, abiding needs. We know that we stand in need of forgiveness of those things done and left undone. Many of us, particularly of my own political side, do not like to think of ourselves as victims, but if we are truly honest we know that some degree of what is wrong is the result of wrongs done to us. As the great Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus once said, it is our fault and yet it is not our fault.
I don’t mean to be pessimistic, though I suppose that is my own tendency. What I mean to convey is that in Christmas we are confronted with the long journey and cold coming of our lives. Dealing with the spiritual reality is never easy. I once heard a pastor say that commercialism wasn’t the real danger in Christmas. Instead it was sentimentality. The subtlety there is that most of us hit an age where presents don’t really matter and instead we define the holiday by the degree to which our holidays resemble a Bing Crosby song. (Don’t get me wrong – I love that stuff). Call it Clark Griswold syndrome, but if we are to truly appreciate Christmas, that just won’t do. Nor can we we stop with the realize that the baby in the manger became the unjust convict on the cross. We must start there, but we cannot end there.
For Christmas to truly take hold in our hearts, we have to recognize why Christ came – why he suffered the indignity of the crucifixion, but also the indignity of infancy, childhood, puberty. He came to set all things right. Of course he came to forgive sin. Of course he came to show us how to live in grateful response to forgiveness. Yet in doing those things, he also came to undo all that is wrong in our world. In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the author describes it as “making all sad things untrue.” Isaac Watts said that we would know this “far as the curse is found.” When we feel at Christmas that ancient thrill of hope, it is the deep knowledge that the Savior who is born is will make the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. That absolutely means the remission of our guilt, and our hearts should be glad to know that will, eventually, undo the tragic consequences of our guilt.
To know all this is to experience Christmas in all its depth and profundity. I don’t mean to make this overly spiritual or too deeply theological. Nor do I mean to suggest that Christmas is somehow about us. It is not. All the same, I fear that we often rush to the manger and leave our cares outside on the front steps of the church, because at Christmas we feel the need to put on a happy face. This is wrong because Christmas, of all the good days in year, is the time when we should not forget our deep needs and longing. The sadness so many feel at this time of year is strangely appropriate because Christmas, and Easter, of course, is the time when we are reminded that the babe in the manger came to crush the head of the serpent. That means the wonderful news that our sins are forgiven, and it brings with it the hope and promise that the curse of that sin will be undone, if not in this life, then certainly in the life of the world to come.
Life is hard, even at time with material abundance like we have never seen. We should not forget that life is hard for those around us, and we should not feel ashamed to confront that our lives are often difficult. We often hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but at Christmas we are reminded that really isn’t true.
Instead, there is a star above a stable, and as we journey there with the Wise Men of old, we find redemption and forgiveness, and the everlasting promise that all wrongs will one day be set right.