Magazine article The Christian Century

Away in a Manger

Magazine article The Christian Century

Away in a Manger

Article excerpt

CHRISTMAS IS coming, the high point of the year in our culture. The church may claim that Easter is the pre-eminent Christian feast, and for Orthodox Christians that may actually be the case. But in the West, the good news of redemption reaches the world most often through the language and imagery of Christmas: peace and good will, family celebration and a baby in a manger.

Every year the Christmas message fills the airwaves and bookstores. The Christmas message is a gospel of salvation: salvation by good will, by family tradition, by Baby Jesus. Salvation by good will is the gospel of Santa Claus, Scrooge, the Grinch and countless others. Salvation by family tradition shows up in magazine stories and on TV specials: characters who are sad, lonely or exhausted as the holiday approaches, and are tempted to skip the whole business, suddenly find the resources or the inspiration to decorate, bake and wrap. Joy returns. Or a family whose holiday is nearly ruined by some disaster manages to celebrate after all and finds new meaning in the experience.

Salvation by Baby Jesus is a specialty of Sunday school stories and Christmas pageant scripts, in which a lost and lonely individual (angel, star, shepherd boy or little animal) feels left out and worthless until, through an encounter with the Christ Child, the character's self-esteem is wondrously restored and the whole world flooded with radiant blessing.

The Christmas message presents itself as an antidote to the commercialized holiday season. Some of the stories, films add plays through which it is preached are fine works of art and have deservedly become classics. Others are shallow and predictable but hold enormous emotional appeal. Our culture is hungry for heartwarming stories that show the world transformed by the coming of a lovely infant, by a single act of kindness, or by tradition, memory and communal celebration. But wholesome as the Christmas message may be, we shouldn't mistake it for the gospel.

Every Advent the scriptures take us through the desperate longing and eagerness of God's people, awaiting God's coming among them to heal and save. The readings for Advent and Christmas progress from this longing to a vision of the fulfillment of God's promises: the Peaceable Kingdom, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the marriage of God and humanity, the renewal of creation. …

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