“Cradle and cross are inextricably connected on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Between a lovely tribute to the little town of Bethlehem and the blessed virgin Mary’s magnificent song of praise, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us in no uncertain terms that Christ’s advent is for ‘the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ It is the kind of tension in which the church always lives as when in the holy communion—with high delight—‘we proclaim the Lord’s death.’ ” (Sundays and Seasons; Augsburg Fortress Canada)
Or, in The Book of Alternative Services, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith. Christ has died…” And again, “Therefore we proclaim our hope. Dying you destroyed our death…”
Roman imperial mythology (Caesar Augustus’ propagandists… sorry, publicity people) at the time that the first ‘First Citizen’ was still alive and on the throne, was already making the claim that Augustus was born of a virgin and was the saviour of the world. Great story, if you want stronger numbers in the polls, but it was definitely not true.
The Christmas Story by itself – as wonderful as it is, and true, so true in the truest sense of the True Gospel, introducing us to the living Word, Jesus who is the Christ – is not enough all by itself. Somehow, maybe it’s the angels and the star and the magi (three kings traditionally, although that number is not to be found in Matthew 2), Christmas, this rich and holy Feast of Twelve Days (Christmas Eve through the Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord, sometimes called Twelfth Night, January 5th), has for many replaced the Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter) as the highest and most powerful Holy-Day for Christians.
While it is a time of great and joyful celebration, twelve whole days’ worth, this mystery that God the immortal Creator should stoop to become mortal creature in the helpless baby of Bethlehem, this wonder-full story, is only the beginning of the journey which takes us to Good Friday and the Cross, and beyond that to the Resurrection.
For several centuries the Christian church probably didn’t make much of Christmas; Epiphany was the great feast other than Easter and Pentecost, because there (January 6th) Christ’s true identity and purpose shine forth in light which darkness cannot overcome. As the church became more Roman it adapted, baptized, one might say, the pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia, which fell in the second part of December, as a time for celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord. By the middle of the fourth century A.D. Christmas had pretty much replaced Saturnalia.
Ironically, there is a connection here with Mary’s Magnificat; during Saturnalia there was a social role reversal, or inversion. Slaves were temporarily free, and within households could even lord it over their master or mistress (always knowing the holiday didn’t last forever and that crucifixion was a regular mode of execution for slaves); for a few days, the mighty were cast down from their thrones and the lowly were lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things.
Serendipity that Christmas displaced Saturnalia? Perhaps, but happy serendipity, because in God’s vision the changes are not meant to be temporary; in Christ God is not out to turn the world upside down as much as turn it back right side up. In God’s own self-humbling in Jesus, even to death on a cross, is the ultimate role reversal. In the third century, Irenaeus put it beautifully when he said, “Because of his boundless love, Jesus became what we are that he might make us to be what he is.”
Christmas: Jesus became what we are.
Easter: Jesus makes us to be what he is.
Thanks be to God!