Here’s the thing: Christmas’ good news – God becoming a human so he could pay for our sins on the cross – is bad news for me, at least in the short run. It means I no longer get to be in control of my life, but must turn over control to God.
The colored lights, the candles, the red-and-green decorations, the presents, the wreaths, the cookies, and the creche – especially the creche – spells my death. That’s exactly the opposite of what I expected as a child. Then, I thought it was almost heaven on earth. Now I know it means surrendering my hopes and dreams, my time, my plans -- in short, my very self – to God.
My favorite poem is “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Elliot. Before becoming a Christian, Eliot wrote poems of despair like “The Hollow Men.” Two years later, Eliot became a follower of Christ, leaving behind his poems of despair and hopelessness for the eternal hope in Christ. That same year, he wrote a poem that portrayed the meaning he found in death. In “The Journey of the Magi” (1927)—a poem I love so much that I have memorized it—one of the wise men writes of the conflicting feelings he has about having found the Christ child:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In other words, the joy of the Incarnation has deadly implications for our hopes and dreams. To live, you must first die. The cross comes before the resurrection. You can’t skip the first to get to the second.
For me, it’s “hard and bitter agony” to die to myself. I first did it at age 16, breaking up with my girlfriend because I knew the relationship wasn’t pleasing to God. But it was more than just leaving a relationship. I knew that I was really breaking up with me. Forever. Whatever God -- that totally unreasonable Creator of all that is – wanted me to do would be my lot in life.
What I want? Butterflies and rainbows. And sailboats and chocolate chip cookies and fame and accolades and money and great sex and the absence of all suffering.
What God wants? Well, he may will those things for us in his time and his way, but much more he wants me to become like him.
Great, just great. That means that I have to think about my responsibility to the poor before I buy a sailboat. And it means eating way fewer cookies than my appetite would allow so I can be a good steward of my health. And using my power and influence to honor God instead of building up the Kingdom of Bill Wichterman. And so many more things.
You see, my natural self would color outside the lines. But the baby in the manger demands not just that I color inside the lines, but that I color at his direction and for his glory.
“For his glory” means that I do everything to please him. Everything. From brushing my teeth to advising corporations to playing with my kids. And serving God means serving others. So I never, ever get to stop being a servant to God and man.
Heavy sigh. This “away in a manger” business turns out to be hard and bitter agony when it comes to my raging self that wants to rule the world, or at least rule my life. Instead, I hand over control to God.
Now for the good news: God is a much, much better ruler of my soul than I am. It turns out that this dying-to-self stuff is actually very good news for me. Just like exercise or a healthy diet or many other disciplines, it produces a healthy – and often a much more satisfying outcome for me. So in the end, the Incarnation is really good news, but getting there isn’t as easy as advertised – at least not for those of us who aren’t so keen on laying down our own lives.
So go ahead and celebrate the joy of Christmas, but keeping in mind all that comes with it.