We will, no doubt, be hearing a great deal over the coming weeks about the need to keep Christ in Christmas, and so there’s no need for me to belabor that point here. More pressing, perhaps – and certainly easier to lose sight of in this season of tinsel and glitter – is the need to keep Easter in Christmas. Without the former, the latter might have ended up as just another failed experiment. But it didn’t. The cross and empty tomb together broke the power that sin and death held over us, thus fulfilling the promise that Mary wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
Easter reveals how God chose to save us. Christmas, meanwhile, reveals who God chose to save us – and, in doing so, exposes the false claims of everything that cannot save us yet pretends to exercise that power. Simply put, in a world filled with false gods that are desperately trying to attract our attention, Christmas shows us what God truly looks like.
One of the voices I’ve increasingly come to count on in recent years for thoughtful analysis and insightful opinion belongs to David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times. A few weeks ago, he wrote a column about, ostensibly, the destructive power of partisan attachments. Brooks’ real subject, though, was the seductive power that false gods – or, to use the biblical term, idols – exercise over our lives. The danger, he wrote, is that “people on the left and on the right who try and use politics to find their ultimate meaning are turning politics into an idol.
Idolatry is what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it’s money, technology, alcohol, success, or politics.”
There’s a reason why the first two commandments that God gave to His people directly address issues of idolatry: We are suckers for answers that seem simple and demand nothing from us – and that’s exactly what idols seem to offer in abundance. Andy Crouch, executive editor of the journal, Christianity Today, puts it like this: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently,
to deliver on their original promises, while racheting up their demands… until they demand everything and give nothing.” It’s a pretty grim, if accurate, assessment. Indeed, the apostle Paul begins his letter to the Romans by identifying the toxic combination of pride and idolatry as the defining characteristic of fallen human nature. He then, in chapter 7, asks the essential question that Christmas answers: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) In the very next verse, he provides the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Christmas, in other words, is God’s best, final response to our age-old habit of idolatry. When God decided that the time had come to reveal His way, He didn’t announce a partisan political agenda or some half-baked radical manifesto: He sent us Jesus. When God decided that the time had come to reveal His truth, He didn’t unveil a new philosophical movement or ideology: He sent us Jesus. When God decided that the time had come to reveal His life, He didn’t offer gadgets to dazzle us, diets and exercise plans to flatter us, addictive substances to help us escape, or anything else
designed to distract us from the reality of our lives: He sent us Jesus.
God’s way, truth, and life turned out to be a who instead of a what – and that’s important, because I’m pretty confident that, given our track record, we would’ve found some way to twist what God might’ve given us into some sort of idol. But God instead gave us a baby, fully human and, at the same time, fully divine. We call this the mystery of the Incarnation, in which God somehow was made flesh and came to dwell among us, as a person we could see and touch and listen to and learn from. Because of Christmas, we no longer have to use our imaginations to wonder what God is like. We no longer have to search around for the next best thing to fill the holes in our hearts and give meaning and direction to our lives.
Instead, because of Christmas, we look to Jesus for all that – and, after all these years, his open invitation to us still stands: “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Idols don’t give those kinds of invitations. Idols don’t make those kinds of offers. Saviors do – which is why, once again, just in time, Christmas comes to bring good tidings of comfort and joy to people like us who are more than ready for abundant, heaping, gracious measures of both. We will, eventually, get to Easter. For now, let’s be grateful for what awaits us
May the peace of Christ be with you!