In Christmas displays across the country, the meek and mild baby Jesus appears alongside his beleaguered parents with angels singing, shepherds adoring and cows lowing. The picture is clear, and the weather is cold but tolerable. All is calm. All is bright.
Off to the side, however, if we are to read the Gospels rightly, all is not calm.
Herod is amassing an imperial force to slaughter thousands of children. Astrologers from beyond Israel are approaching the manger to offer their adoration. Very soon, the young family will leave under threat of their life and flee to Egypt as mothers across Bethlehem wail in anguish as their children are murdered.
This is the full Christmas story.
This is the story of God’s coming into the world. There is a real violence to the Christmas story.
It is not a violence of families dredging up old grudges or of bitter losses felt more acutely at the holiday time. It is the violence that comes whenever the kingdom of God is made known and when that which is opposed to God’s presence feels threatened. It is the violence that rises up in indignation, for it knows—in the words of Mary—the day is coming when the rich will be sent away hungry. It is the violence that supports power, secures greed, hides vice and protects dark secrets.
For with the coming of Christ, the days of Herod are numbered, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
This is the Christmas story. This is the story of God’s coming into the world: terrifying angels—harbingers of God—appear in the night sky announcing a new day; lowly shepherds attend the manger instead of kings; Mary’s speech—the Magnificat pronouncing the day of the Lord’s strong arm—is about to be fulfilled.
It is a story that rightly should trouble us: God is coming into the world.
If God were an article of clothing or a child’s toy, we could position God or hang God up until a more convenient time. But when God appears, when the reality of all things in Christ is disclosed, we find that much of how we wish the world to be cannot stand.
To be sure, Christmas is a time of peace, but of God’s peace. It is a time of love, but of God’s love. The descriptor makes all the difference—for the peace and love of God—manifest in Christ—are not peace and love without cost. Instead, God’s peace and love call into question our love of wealth, lust of the eyes and pride of life.
Christ’s coming announces a new world—breaking in now—that calls for disciples to proclaim and live out by the Spirit a way that will invite the violence of the old order.
This is a Christmas story far more befitting light coming into darkness, with all of the joy and danger appropriate to it.
So, begone with the sentimental Christmas carols of tranquility!
This is the beginning of the end, the opening of a drama that begins with a murder and ends with a resurrection, and we are invited to join in.
Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at Myles.Werntz@hsutx.edu.