The Terrifying First Christmas

Pope Francis visits the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square after leading vespers on New Year's Eve at the Vatican Dec. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

December brings concerns about the commercialism of Christmas, along with invocations to return to the day’s “true meaning.” Usually this means a rejection of consumerism in favor of faith. It’s about Christ, people say, not Macy's. Instead of stressing over what to buy, seek to grow closer to God.

I have no problem with those goals; they arise from pious intentions. But even ardent efforts to dilute materialism and cherish the true meaning can fall short. We can attend church and give to charity and still totally miss out on the day's spiritual significance. So removed are we from the time of Christ, so secure are our lives and fortunes, so long have we connected Christmas to parties and candy canes, we rarely wrestle with the reality of what happened.

Are we able to?

It feels impolite to speak of the dynamite of the Incarnation; it seems so alien to the holiday mood, such the vibe to block from the room. But merriment about glad tidings should not divorce our memory from the trauma surrounding Christ’s birth. Tempted to reduce Christmas to sugary exhortations about love and goodwill, we need only dip our thoughts into Scripture.

The news of Jesus’ arrival confused Mary; caused Joseph to consider divorce; and, in King Herod, commenced a genocidal fury. Once Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph have to flee Bethlehem to evade Herod’s assassins. The Holy Family wait there until an angel tells Joseph to return; but Joseph, fearful of Herod’s son, and warned by another angel, decides to head to Nazareth.

That’s the first Christmas. It rattles a marriage. It exiles a family. It endangers lives. And it provokes a madman to murder. The brisk descriptions in the New Testament fail to capture what must have been, for Mary and Joseph and many others, a bewildering, terrifying ordeal.

I don’t recall these scenes so we can relive them. I don’t recall them to make Christmas feel like Good Friday. Our vocation is not to those trials. But the exile, the massacre, the uncertainty, they remind us that what we mark so gleefully and easily, what we express in lounging, food and song, had the effect of an earthquake in the lives of real people. The Light came, but not without a fight. The Light won, but not without cost.

This isn’t to say the birth of Christ was an entirely dour and divisive affair. For very good reasons, Christmas is a celebration. An angel in the Gospel of Luke informs shepherds of the “good news of great joy for all the people . . .” After visiting the manger, those shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Today, we do similarly: we glorify God for what we have heard, for what we know by faith.  

But the first Christmas reminds us of truths we can never hear enough. Once Christ wins our obedience, everything changes. Ego abdicates. The pursuit of security surrenders its loyalties. Our desire for predictability makes way for mystery. Suddenly, we are pilgrims. 

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in us all. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room?

It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils. At Jesus' Presentation (only 40 days after his birth), Simeon tells Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact? Can we let it reveal something of our inner thoughts and renew our passion for conversion? The words of John Donne apply:

Batter my heart, three personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captive and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

There is my prayer this Christmas. Batter my heart, O God. Batter my heart.

Carlos Leon
3 years 7 months ago
Great insight, my Advent journey, this season of "yes", is back on track, thanks.Terrified is a very good word and the phrase "do not be afraid" must live together in our hearts. It makes not only the nativity narrative very real but sets up the reading of the rest of the gospels because the challenges that Jesus throws at us requires understanding those words. Batter my heart, wow, and be ready to say yes.
Mike Cagle
3 years 7 months ago
When you say something like the experience of the first Christmas "must have been, for Mary and Joseph and many others, a bewildering, terrifying ordeal," it's important to keep in mind that it didn't actually happen. It's a tale told by people. Please don't neglect that most important point. It must also have been terrifying for the Fantastic Four when they first faced Doctor Doom. IN A STORY.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

An explosive device was detonated outside the offices of the Mexican bishops' conference, directly across the street from the country's most visited religious site, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. walks from the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017, as he steers the Senate toward a crucial vote on the Republican health care bill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Republican proposals “exclude too many people, including immigrants,” Bishop Frank J. Dewane said in a statement.
Without quite knowing it, I had begun to rely on the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
Elizabeth BruenigJuly 25, 2017
A demonstration for affordable health care in New York City on July 13. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, called on the Senate July 21 to fix problems with the Affordable Care Act in a more narrow way, rather than repeal it without an adequate replacement. (CNS photo/Andrew Gombert, EPA)
The sisters say that they are “most troubled by the cuts it would make to Medicaid by ending the Medicaid expansion and instituting a per capita cap [on spending].”