We’re four days into Christmas and this year I have the sense that instead of insisting that we put the Christ back into Christmas, we maybe ought to insist we take the “merry” out of Christmas. Before you simply write me off as a curmudgeon, scrooge, or crank, let me explain.
There are a series of commemorations of high profile martyrs right after Christmas. It begins with the Feast of Stephen (on Dec. 26 in the West and Dec 27 in the East). Of course the “Stephen” of the feast is Protomartyr Stephen, one of the first appointed deacons and first Christian martyr (thus, the title protomartyr). Then the next day (in the east) you have the commemoration of to the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia. They were burned to death on Christmas Eve/Christmas morning when their church was torched during the midnight Nativity service. 20,000 at a single service? Yeah, I doubt it too. But the torching of the church was part of a much larger and vicious persecution under Emperor Maximium at the beginning of the fourth century. I have no doubt that 20,000 were killed in that region over the short but terrible period of persecution.
And then, of course, the following day is Holy Innocents, when the babies of Judea are commemorated … Rachel, inconsolable, weeping for her children, as Jesus is whisked away to Egypt by his parents, having been warned in a dream of the persecution to come.
The birth of Jesus, in the scheme of the flow of God’s mighty acts, is not so much a happy event, nor is it an act that ought to be celebrated by itself, as if the importance of the event is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Rather, the birth is the beginning of something new. It is the start of an upset to the world order that is described in various places in scripture as a terrible earthquake, as the stars falling from heaven, as dark and darkest thunder clouds gathering to hide the earth, as a tearing open of the fabric of heaven (that is the literal meaning of “apocalypse”).
In this context I love the word “portent.” Jesus’ birth was not an event to be understood within itself, but rather, as the three Magi might have described it, a portent of things to come. A new king was born. And he was neither of the line of Herod, nor a Roman, nor of the ilk of the Scribes, Pharisees, or Sadducees. The birth was a sign (ie, a portent) that soon things would change radically, and the world order was not going to like the change one bit.
And it is in this context that the word “merry” in connection with Christmas, seems terribly misplaced. While it’s a perfectly good word to bring to mind a mid-winter English scene, the hearth burning brightly, slightly tipsy neighbors walking down the street from pub to flat singing seasonal songs, and goose, kidney pudding, and wassail cooking in the kitchen, it’s a very bad word to describe this baby born in a barn, who will be fleeing to a foreign country within a year or two, and whose life will be full of sorrows and death, whose life and death will cause uncounted deaths and unmeasured suffering over the next centuries.
Certainly the birth was a happy occasion, no matter the circumstances. It was also joyful, even with the all the future circumstances in mind. As Mary said in her song, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Remember, she’s singing about the baby Jesus. As anyone can recognize from these momentous words, while this might be joyful for the “lowly” and “hungry,” this is not going to be an easy transition.
So, “Merry Christmas”? I don’t think so, unless you’re referring to a mere cultural celebration which falls very near the winter solstice. “Blessed feast!” is certainly more appropriate, or possibly the seasonal liturgical greeting, “Christ is born. Glorify him.” Or maybe, even better, would be to use Peter’s timeless words as a greeting: “Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13).
Okay, maybe that’s too long to be used as a greeting. But you get the idea.