The Terror of Christmas

The Terror of Christmas December 23, 2017

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I’ve come to a point in my life where the cheery kitsch of the Christmas holiday season just doesn’t really do anything for me anymore. I love the celebration of Christmas, but much of the “holiday season” vibe that comes with it I increasingly find irritating. Lest I be mistaken, I am not saying that I dislike the joy that accompanies the season. It is still a wonderful thing to see the joy of a child’s face at the sight of a Christmas parade or at thought of being able to tell Santa Claus what they would like (it is also just as fun to watch children crying in terror at benign and jolly shopping mall Santas; the beard can be scary I suppose).

No, what I find grating about the Christmas holiday season—aside from the garish commercialism and materialism that grows and is decried every year—is how those who really celebrate it for what it is sentimentalize it into impotence. The same people who shout “Put Christ back in Christmas!” seem themselves to have very little understanding of what is entailed in celebrating Christ’s Mass (“Christmas” comes from “Christ’s Mass” if you didn’t know). We have these pictures of a perfectly clean and happy baby Jesus, surrounded by Mary and Joseph—neither of whom looks like they just endured the birth of a child—and some surprisingly well-groomed livestock.

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All of this masks the shock of Christmas. It obscures the jarring reality of the Incarnation, the beginning of the most important and titanic series of events in the history of the created universe: the God-Man and His defeat of the powers of sin, death, entropy, and chaos; the powers of darkness in all their forms. Frederick Buechner—one of the greatest writers of the last fifty years, in my opinion—captures the nature of Christmas well in this regard:

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed as a matter of cold, hard fact all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space/time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.  (Beyond Words, p. 61)

“It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.” It is increasingly words such as these that I find instilling the most reverence and awe within me come Advent and Christmastide. Words such as these remind me that Christmas is not meant to be sentimentalized nor sanitized. It bust be seen for what it is: the day we Christians commemorate and celebrated the titanic upheaval of the Incarnation, coming of the God-Man to liberate His creation from enslaving powers of sin and death.

If we are to follow that Dickensian luminary, Ebenezer Scrooge, upon his own confrontation with powers beyond his control—”I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year”—then we must not dwell on the sentimental Christmas creche , comforting though it is. Instead we must remember what the Mass of Christ points to: the Incarnation of the Uncreated Logos, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.”

We must allow ourselves to dwell within the terror of Christmas, in all of its shocking beauty.

So this Christmas season, may you think well upon the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ and all that it entails.

Merry Christmas to all.


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