Christmas is a Choice
Christmas is not an event.
Christmas is not a holiday.
Christmas is not a church service.
Christmas is not a set of familiar carols or decorations of red and green or a jolly man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer.
Christmas is not an occasion or a party or a festival. It is not a piece of history or time off work or a gathering with family.
All of these things are connected to Christmas, but fundamentally, Christmas is not an event.
Christmas is a choice.
Christmas is a choice that we make every year, and that we must make over and over again every day of the year.
Choice and lack of choice place us in one of two positions: one of vulnerability and one of power and control.
When we don’t have a choice about something, we are vulnerable to that circumstance. We can’t defend ourselves from that reality.
That situation acts upon us and we simply have to make the best of it.
It’s not a very fun place to be sometimes.
When we have a choice about our situation, we have power and control.
We can influence our surroundings and how they affect us.
So you’ll be glad to hear that Christmas is a choice that we have, that we can make.
Christmas cannot simply happen to us without our consent.
We have to say yes to a very specific decision, which I will explain in a bit. But again, first let’s talk about lack of choices and the vulnerable position that creates.
Mary didn’t have a choice about being on the road when she went into labor. Joseph had to register for the census and that meant traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Joseph didn’t have a choice about the fact that this child was not biologically his own. It was a done deal by the time he found out about it.
Neither of them had a choice about the fact that Jesus would be born in a stable. There was no room at the inn, so it was either the barn or a ditch by the side of the road.
They were made vulnerable by their circumstances, vulnerable to gossip about Jesus’ parentage, vulnerable to physical pain and danger in Mary’s case, vulnerable to a feeling of failing to provide for his family in Joseph’s case.
The shepherds didn’t have a choice about being out in the fields with their sheep in the dark and potentially the cold.
The sheep needed tending and guarding, and the sheep were the shepherds’ livelihood, their means of economic survival. The shepherds were vulnerable to the weather and the terrain.
They also didn’t have a choice about the visiting angels. The heavenly host descended on them out of nowhere, and suddenly Glorias were filling the air. They were terrified, and had no defense against their fear.
As you think about your life this year, what do you feel like you didn’t and don’t have a choice about?
Probably a lot of things.
You don’t have a choice about the Alzheimer’s or dementia that has taken over not just the life of your spouse or parent, but your life as well.
You don’t have a choice about the stroke or heart attack or cancer that took away a loved one all too soon.
You don’t have a choice about the job you hate or the job you lost or the job you can’t get or the job you miss.
You don’t have a choice about your own struggles with food or relationships or sleep or alcohol, the fight to make good choices that you seem to lose over and over.
There is a creeping sense of choicelessness that sneaks up on us from the outside world as well.
It feels like we don’t have a choice about the increasing volatility of our nation’s civil discourse, of ever more extreme swings to the edge of the political spectrum.
It feels like we don’t have a choice about the polarization of pro-second Amendment people and gun control advocates, the attempts by some to make Christianity and Islam enemies instead of sister faiths, and the increasingly obvious gulfs caused by the deep wound of racism in this country.
What was one Middle Eastern family wandering without a place to rest two-thousand years ago has swelled to hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern families wandering the Earth today, seeking asylum from war in Syria, being told they are not welcome in Indiana, being told there is no room at the inn.
It often feels like we are vulnerable to forces that will sweep over us and leave us shattered in their wake, forces of violence and hatred and extremism both within and without.
We see darkness and our fear drives us to risk conceding to the darkness within our own minds and hearts, to fight violence with violence, hatred with hatred, despair and cynicism with a hardening of our own hearts.
That is what choicelessness drives us to.
That is what lack of agency is like.
That is what it means to be vulnerable to circumstances that we can’t control.
We can only take so much of our lives being decided for us until we start to lash out, until virtue no longer seems as important as power, until we don’t care who we hurt as long as it stops our own pain and fear.
Have you felt like that at any point this year? This month? This week?
And so, we come to Christmas.
And Christmas is all about God giving us a choice.
God places the power in our hands.
God comes into the raging inferno of our insane world and says to us, “Do you want me? Will you allow me to be born among you? Will you accept this tiny infant as your savior and your friend and your hope?”
And we’re free to say no.
Because underneath that choice is another choice, and that is the choice that is the true choice of Christmas.
We have to choose to be vulnerable to joy.
Vulnerable to joy? That doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Who doesn’t want to experience joy?
Well, it’s more complicated than that.
Despair and cynicism and even hatred are actually the paths of least resistance.
When something offends us or frightens us, the easiest response is to lash out in anger and vicious self-defense.
And with the difficult situations in our lives compounded by the encroachment of the wars of the earth, our walls are very, very high right now.
We will not be caught defenseless. We will not be left unaware.
We will not be caught off guard, made to look foolish, victims of a surprise attack.
Our fear almost makes us seek out darkness everywhere we go, if only to justify the walls we’ve built around our hearts.
And how does God answer our minds and hearts and communities bristling with self-defense so aggressive that it actually seems to be offense?
God gives Godself to us in the most vulnerable form possible: a fragile human baby.
What defense does an infant have against our fear-driven anger, hostility, and coldness?
What would happen to baby Jesus if we responded to him with the same indifference and dismissiveness with which we all too often treat our fellow human beings?
He would die.
That’s what would happen. He would not survive.
A human infant needs constant care, constant love, constant warmth and faithful tending to his needs.
And underneath the wounded and angry exteriors of the people on this earth that we as individuals simply cannot seem to relate to, from the jerk in your workplace to the most hardened ISIS militant, is the presence of the infant Christ, needing our care, needing our love, needing our undefended joy in his existence.
And joy is something it is surprisingly difficult to let ourselves feel fully sometimes.
A sense of duty can drive us to care for someone else and place us at least in the outer rims of the territory of love.
But truly letting joy wash over us—what often happens is we hedge our joy.
We celebrate and give thanks, but in the back of our minds there is the knowledge that this goodness could be lost in a moment, that it will probably all turn bad in the future, that even this light does not erase the darkness in our lives.
We hedge our joy, unwilling to let go those last shreds of defended self-consciousness, the final walls that protect us from being utterly vulnerable, able to be hurt.
Baby Jesus didn’t have a choice about his vulnerability. He was born on this earth literally defenseless.
His life could have been snatched away at any moment in his first hour, his first day, his first week.
He didn’t even have the benefit of being born inside at least a human dwelling place, much less the help of modern medicine.
You would think the Incarnate God would rate a first rate medical facility with a dozen armed guards.
He got a barn, two tired parents, and some ragtag shepherds.
He was utterly vulnerable to the darkness that surely sought his demise.
And this is where the choice of Christmas comes for us: as vulnerable and defenseless as baby Jesus was in the literal stable in first century Palestine two thousand years ago, he is equally vulnerable in our own hearts.
The temptations to darkness, to violence and hatred, to self-protective mechanisms that assuage our fear and pain are so strong that they will win if we let them.
And when that happens, the baby Jesus is left abandoned within us, with no one to care for him, no one to keep him warm, no one to protect him from the encroaching darkness.
We choose whether to stay by his side in the manger and love him and rejoice in him and marvel at him, or whether to engage in some misguided crusade against the darkness that is really only an attack on another child of God.
We choose whether to look at another person, next to us in the pew or around the world, and see darkness to be eradicated or a manger to be knelt by.
And our choice means life or death for the fragile newborn Christ in us and in our neighbors.
That is what it means to make ourselves vulnerable to joy.
We have to set down our weapons, take off our armor, lay by our power and control, in order to even see the infant Christ in each other, much less kneel and adore him.
It is a terrifying prospect.
But the choice of Christmas that we make is in answer to the choice that God made, the choice to come to us fragile, undefended, vulnerable, utterly reliant on us humans for his survival in the world.
And God took joy in giving Godself to us in this way.
So if we can take the same risk that God did, we can feel the same joy God feels.
Light meets light, joy touches joy, and the darkness itself bows in awe at the radiance that shines out of the fragile infant Christ.
And what happens when we do take off the armor?
What happens when we stop trying to be right all the time, safe all the time, in control all the time?
What happens when we let the light radiating from that small face in the manger penetrate our hearts?
Oh, it is so beautiful.
You may laugh. You may cry.
You may laugh through your tears and cry in your laughter.
Joy is deeper than happiness or celebration or giddy exuberance.
Joy is a force that knocks down all the walls around our hearts and levels us with the goodness, the grace, the unearned and unending love and healing that is our newly arrived Jesus.
Joy remakes us, tears down our cynical and fearful identities and gives birth to a self that is trusting, patient, believing, knowing that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
Joy is the reward of the long nurtured faith that got us here.
Joy is a quiet and lasting foundation that endures while the currents of happiness and grief wash back and forth over the surface of our hearts.
Joy is the first breath the resurrected Christ takes in the tomb on Easter morning, it is the breath behind the healing words he speaks to you when you clutch at the hem of his robe, it is the quiet, sweet breath of the sleeping baby in the manger as we look on, feeling our hearts overflow.
The joy of Christ becomes our own breath, and if we surrender this far to grace, we could no more choose not to live in him than we could choose not to breathe.
That is what awaits us behind the choice of Christmas.
That is what being vulnerable to joy feels like.
This is what joy can do to us if we let it, if we have the courage to let go into the miracle.
It’s all up to us.
What choice will you make?
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