There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
-T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”
As a child, I remember reading a nativity book with black silhouetted illustrations. I had been enjoying the traditional sentiments that accompany the story of Christ’s birth—all the peaceful aspects of the nativity described in carols like “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
But then I came across an image from the story that disturbed me. It was a picture of a woman kneeling on the ground, weeping over the body of her dead baby. Other women were depicted clutching their babies to their chests as they ran from soldiers with knives, knowing that it was hopeless. It was the scene of Herod’s murder of the young children of Bethlehem, who are sometimes considered the first martyrs of the church. This day is remembered in the church on December 28, a festal day known as Childermas, or The Feast of the Holy Innocents.
In the midst of the tinsel and carols and decorations, this can easily be forgotten. But Christ’s entrance into the world began with death, and it will end the same way. In Frederick Buechner’s sermon “The Birth,” he describes the visit of the Wise Men to the child Christ. When they arrive, what they find is not at all what they had expected.
I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death… It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left – giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.
And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?
The Wise Man was right. Scripture reminds us that to belong to Christ, we first have to die to ourselves. Death is part of the story of Christmas, as it is part of our own stories.
This realization should be a sobering one. And this is why, traditionally, the church has observed Advent as a penitential season. It is a season of waiting, a season in which we confess our sins and purify our hearts, in order to prepare them for the arrival of Christ. But our culture of consumerism leaves little place for Advent, preferring instead to start the celebration of Christmas even before Thanksgiving, in order to maximize sales. By the time Christmas day arrives, most of us are ready for it all to be done. But this emphasis on acquisition often has the opposite effect that Advent is meant to produce. It fills us with busyness and exhaustion, rather than stilling our hearts in quiet anticipation for the coming of Christ.
The innkeeper in Buechner’s sermon speaks of the danger of this busyness. He describes the exhaustion of life as being “lost in an unenchanted forest of a million trees.” And he only realizes what he is missing when it’s too late.
When the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it… But this I do know. My own true love. All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come—we all of us do—our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.
To be ready for Christ when he comes, our hearts must first be prepared for him. This is why the church originally celebrated the season of Advent before the season of Christmas—four weeks of preparation, candle-lighting, and quiet anticipation, followed by twelve days of feast and joyous celebration: the famous twelve days of Christmas.
That great feast celebrates the hope that lies at the end of the silence of Advent—the same hope that spurred Christ towards the cross, despising the shame, for the sake of the joy set before him. Death is not the end of the story. For if we die with him, we will also share in his resurrection. And we will be there when he comes again, to make all wrongs right. The innocents will be vindicated. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, on earth as it is in heaven.