Why every day cannot be Christmas Day

I write this at peak Christmas.

Peak Christmas does not happen on Christmas Day – it happens the night before.

All of the preparation, the carols, the extra coins in the red bucket at the grocery store, the stories of good will toward perfect strangers, the re-focusing on just what Christmas is all about, the magic of the nighttime, the anxious awaiting of dawn…

It reaches a head just before bedtime on Christmas Eve.  You could stride along, atop the sheer anticipation.

There are those universal moments – the story of a stranger pulling over to help someone stranded on the side of the road, or a famous person discreetly providing toys to poor children, or a church getting together to feed the homeless a hot meal – which elicit the lament, “Why can’t every day be like this?”  Or you sometimes hear it declared, ambitiously – “Make every day Christmas day!”

It would be nice, wouldn’t it?  A universal disposition toward concern for others, finding satisfaction in bringing joy to others, making impossible things happen – even the gaiety of spirit one experiences, alone, driving along a dark road with Christmas lights shining brightly.

Why can the people in darkness not see a great light, every night?

 

In the classic carol, “Little Drummer Boy,” there are two lines which go:

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum 
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum 

This verse presents the Incarnation in a striking way.  A boy who is weathered by the elements, who knows hunger, who is always only days away from wasting away – this boy empathizes with the King of Kings, because the King has so completely relinquished His power.

He has arrived utterly powerless, utterly impoverished, an infant lying among beasts.  Of course a shepherd boy could relate.

What’s more, a few lines later – “Then He smiled at me.”

This can be our Lord’s simple pleasure at a shepherd boy’s humble song.  Then again, if you hold in mind the shared poverty, something else emerges:  It is a blessing.

The baby to the boy:  Your humble station, your poverty, are not the shackles you think they are.  You are here before the Almighty, aren’t you?  Did you not see the heavens open up, and angels arrayed like a mighty army, singing my praises?  And with Me, what will be impossible for you?

 

Of course, on the one hand, we cannot have our own birthdays every day.  Even if you tried to celebrate every day this way, it would – very quickly – exhaust your body’s ability to feel pleasure and your mind’s ability to call it happiness.

So that is the first answer:  Celebrations stand out from ordinary time, and require the experience of ordinary time in order to create the contrast, the novelty, the superlative atmosphere for which they are known.

See it another way – our ordinary experience in the modern world is Christmas-like for those from another place or time.  That the ordinary is no longer special is not only tautological, but part of the human condition.

The second answer rides aloft upon the first:  We are not home yet.

The Incarnation was a rescue mission, an invasion by God Himself to save His children when nothing else would work.

That He arrived as a baby was a profound stratagem, one that brought Him deftly behind enemy lines.  He evaded the princes and principalities, and He softened the guard each of us keeps on our hearts.

That the Almighty became frighteningly vulnerable; that the all-knowing became ignorant of His own name; that He who is Holy, Holy, Holy was tempted to sin…

All of this was done, to save you.

Nothing could be more extraordinary.  “Christmas every day” could never capture it, and it is undesirable in any case – because it would be a fraud.

What Christmas gives us is a flickering light through a dark glass.  It is nostalgic, like the memory of a long-deceased father who loved us very much.  It is one frame per second of the memory we wish could play over and over again.

It is, in short, a reminder of our true home.  Not even Christmas – not the best, most magnanimous, most inclusive, most abundant moment of Christmas – can truly accomplish what is longed for when we ask for Christmas every day.

That is achieved when God remakes the heavens and the earth – this world, the darkness, will pass away.

Everything else is a paltry imitation, and even the holy day itself merely points to this.  You will know it is really Christmas when you hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Spirit and Letter of the Law

The Pharisees made an art and a science out of observing the Law of Moses, cowing many followers into observing the endless minutiae and machinations they had devised.  It was indeed a heavy burden – was God really like this?

Or should the commandments of God liberate us from sin, and cut a path to His love and mercy?

Along comes Jesus, who earlier permitted his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath, and now was healing on the Sabbath.  How could he explain this over and above the endless strictures concerning the day of rest?  -which strictures certainly appeared to take the command “Keep holy the Sabbath” as seriously as possible.

Jesus’ justification is two-fold:  First, a man is more valuable than a sheep (and the Pharisees would certainly rescue their own sheep from harm on the Sabbath).

Second – of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.  The whole point – of all God’s commands – is that we ought to do good.  But we sin, so we require God’s mercy and guidance to do good rather than to sin.  The commandment regarding the Sabbath was directed toward being holy – not toward following a rule.

The commandments are not for nothing.  They are the pattern of behavior, the focus and discipline of a man’s spirit toward the will of God.  If you follow them because you love God, you will do well!

If you follow them because you love power and influence, because you leverage them so that men will grovel at your feet or struggle to be conformed to your image, now that you have sufficiently misshapen the Law…

Right then, it is time to turn back.  Immediately.  Turn around – you’ve gone far, far off the path.

But take heed… a viper would be found far off the path.

 

See it again, one more time:   If there had been no Fall, there would be no Law.  We would be inclined toward the Good, and thus “all things are permissible.”

As it is, there was a Fall – and therefore we are profoundly broken.  We see good, and perceive that it is evil.  We see evil and imagine it is good.  It is an honest mistake, or it would be a diabolical one.

To counter-act this, God established rules-laws-patterns of behavior that would settle all disputes within the will (and the community).  My fallen nature urges me toward an illicit act.  But it is powerful and feels genuine – why not act on it?

There might not be any reason to avoid doing so, except the Law.  Of course, even that was violated, but at least we could then recognize we had sinned, and were in need of a Savior…

Therefore, the Law was good – profoundly good, so that not one iota would be altered until heaven and earth disappear.

And it was this profound good that the Pharisees had appropriated for their own gain.  The promise of God, that one would find true peace and prosperity and joy in following the commandments (“Lord, I love your commands!”), became a long chain of shackles hammered together by men too small to let their brothers live free.  It became an admixture of their neuroses and scruples, their leverage from a distance of a great weight upon their brothers.

This weight they attempted to foist upon and trap Jesus, the Messiah.  As if to anticipate the old atheist riddle, they burdened the Son of God with a weight they imagined he could not handle.

Notice, though:  There is a rock so big that God cannot lift it.  That is, of despair.   And with so many laws, and laws upon laws, and consequences of laws that must be addressed by still more laws, one could easily find, say, lepers and paralytics and tax collectors laden with such an impossible weight.

For love of them – the lost – Jesus flares up with indignation.  His Law – an instrument of liberation – bent back upon itself and sharpened into an instrument of condemnation.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

 

No – the purpose and the end are God.  They always were.  It was always – dimly – the Beatific Vision, the “well done, good and faithful servant!”  The Fall was a happy fault, because God would not, even then, abandon us.  He would find a still more incredible way to point us back to Him, and deliver us.

And we might say – He’ll be damned if His own rules are going to be used against Him.  How true.