When Starbucks rolls out its red cups filled with eggnog or gingerbread lattes; when Walmart stocks Santa merchandise and red & green decorations before the ghosts and orange & black of Halloween are put away; when the Christmas parties and banquets begin to clutter your calendar, do you respond, as Phil Walger confesses to, with weariness (see “Have a theological Christmas”)?
Does even the promise of feasting on goodies, giving and receiving gifts, a constant cacophony of carols, and twinkling outdoor lights dispelling winter’s growing gloom fail to balance the season’s burdens?
I enjoin you to find relief in joy.
Not the shiny, glib cheerfulness of the shopping malls, but a deep, abiding peace from the knowledge that good news has come.
A joy that seeks to bring joy to others (see “A simple wish list”). A joy that delights in the diversity and support of a spiritual family across the globe (see “The hands and feet of Jesus”). A joy that can accommodate the profound and permanent sorrow of loss (see “Home for Christmas”). A joy that stands hopefully with the oppressed because the liberator has come despite the dragon lady’s apparent domination (see “Waiting for Christmas”).
When Jesus shows up
As pastor-in-residence at Canadian Mennonite University (Nov. 4–8, 2013), J Janzen observed in a chapel service that sometimes all it takes for a change to happen in our hearts is for Jesus to arrive.
In Luke 19, J observed, Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to repent for his wrongdoing nor does Jesus rebuke Zacchaeus for his sin. Jesus simply invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house – and the man falls over himself to atone for his transgressions. Turned by the mere presence of the Holy One, Zaccheaus discovers joy in unburdening himself of ill-gotten gain.
There’s something about Jesus that puts things to right in heaven and on earth, simply by his showing up. Just as he did at Christmas.
Fear and joy
Two reactions stand out in the stories around Jesus’ birth: fear and joy.
When the characters are greeted with the news of Immanuel’s imminent intervention in human history, many respond with fear.
Mary is “troubled” by the angel’s appearance. The shepherds are “filled with great fear” by the blazing angel who suddenly materializes in their night sky. And that “all Jerusalem” shares King Herod’s response to the magi’s news of a king probably says more about the violence and scope with which he expressed his frightened agitation than about the citizens’ sympathy for their ruler.
Even the announcement of the coming of the messenger of Messiah arouses anxiety. Zechariah falls down before the angel who announces John the Baptist’s birth. His neighbours become fearful at the revelation that this baby John is something remarkable, someone holy.
For many of these characters, the fear transforms as they press further into the awesome presence of God. Embracing the news of a new kingdom ushered in by a little child, they find relief in the promise to come.
Unmuted, Zechariah explodes with blessing to God, trumpeting the knowledge of salvation that will come through Messiah’s messenger. Mary calmly accepts the angel’s in-conceivable annunciation of a child, later bursting into a magnificent song of praise to God that celebrates the upsidedown kingdom her son will bring. The shepherds follow the angels’ instructions to intrude on the Lamb – an encounter they just can’t stop talking about.
And some, filled with the Holy Spirit, skip straight to joy. Elizabeth exclaims with “a loud cry” as her unborn child leaps with joy. Cradling the child, old Simeon in the temple overflows with assurance and confidence in his Master’s plan.
The shape of relief
When Jesus is announced, how do you experience relief?
If he came to your house, would you, like Zacchaeus, exchange your burdens for joy? Would you, like the shepherds, stand tall in the dignity of being his witness? Like Zechariah, would you – through hard obedience – have joy and gladness at the fulfillment of God’s promise?
The wait is over: salvation has come. Find relief in the joy of Jesus’ birth.