As children, we pass a good portion of each year waiting for Christmas. As adults, we spend most of our lives remembering Christmases long lost. When I ponder Christmases past, I can’t help but to wonder how my parents did it. They both worked forty hours a week in a grocery store, yet my mother could have opened a shop of Christmas sweets, so much baking and candy making did she and my father do on the weekends that preceded Christmas.
Working for the wages they did, I still don’t understand how they could afford my Fort Apache Set or my sister’s Easy Bake Oven and certainly not my brother’s Electric Football Game, but both of my parents had a deep devotion to Christmas, no matter the cost. They both remembered their own Christmases, in the midst of the depression. My mother would receive a bag of candy that was all her own; she would share the baby doll with her sisters. I come from a long line of folk well aware of the cost of Christmas.
This Christmas, it’s hard not to think of Newtown, Connecticut. The families of that Norman Rockwell, New England community will never celebrate the holiday in the same way. Some people may be inclined to think that the events at Sandy Point School reveal the deep disconnect between Christmas and the harsh reality of our world. Perhaps that’s because the Christmas that comes to many minds is centered upon children rather than the Gospel. All too many Christians fail to think about the cost of Christmas. This newborn has come among us to suffer and to die.
It helps to know that the Gospels were composed backwards compared to how we read them today. Christ first came to the world’s attention with the claim that one crucified had risen from the dead. Scripture scholars suggest that the death and resurrection narratives were the first to be written, which makes sense. It took time for Christians to inquire about the origins of this man they called savior. We read them first, but the infancy narratives were probably the last portions of the gospels to be composed. As such, they’re suffused with the themes and concerns of the passion and the resurrection. Try to read the Christmas stories without our culture’s “holiday season” overlay, and you’ll discover “the cost of Christmas.”
Luke begins by noting that the Jesus is born during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The contrast between this Caesar, who wields unlimited power, and the poverty of the Christ couldn’t be greater. This is a family too poor to find a room in Bethlehem. Just as the ubiquity of our crucifixes can make Christ’s death seem commonplace, our romantic manger scenes can mask the poverty of that cold night.
Saint Luke’s has been called the Gospel of the Remnant, of outsiders. It is not the priest Zechariah, but Mary, the unknown and uneducated girl, who accepts the annunciation in faith. Shepherds come to Bethlehem because no one else does. Animal herders were quite literally “the street people” of the ancient, rural world. They were available.
In Luke’s gospel, two old people, praying in the temple, Simeon and Anna — even then, pushed aside from society’s concerns — are the first of the faithful remnant to greet the child. And Simeon darkly tells his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2: 34-35). Christmas and its Christ child come with a cost.
While Saint Luke reminds us that Christ came among his own who knew him not — an outcast for outsiders — Saint Matthew wants us to remember that Jesus comes as suffering savior. He records the poignant gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child: gold for the king, frankincense for the priest, and myrrh for the one who will die.
Matthew’s gospel contrasts the innocent Christ child with King Herod’s cruelty. Joseph is warned in a dream, “Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Much of Matthew’s infancy narrative is too frightening to recount at Christmas. Herod is furious at the deception of the Wise Men, and he orders “the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Mt 2:16) The shadow of the cross falls over Judea, and Saint Matthew quotes the suffering prophet, Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more. (2: 18)
Today we celebrate a much more anodyne Christmas than the one our evangelists gave us. We say that “Christmas is for kids,” forgetting that Christmas sets in motion the passion, death, and resurrection of the Christ, the only hope this sad, ancient world knows.
The Church, however, remembers the cost of Christmas. The Eucharist of Christmas day, like every Mass, is centered upon the passion, death, and resurrection of the Savior. The day after Christmas the Church celebrates Stephen, the first martyr. Three days later, she remembers the Holy Innocents. Preaching that feast, Saint Quodvultdeus addressed King Herod:
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.
Yes, Christmas is for children, but Christmas is also for adults, for the aged, for outcasts, for those who cannot be consoled. Christmas is a cheap holiday, one that taxes and strains, when we drain it of its Christ. But if we remember the cost of Christmas, then, in the words of the old hymn, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the Soul felt its worth.”