“It’s sometimes in the happiest moments that sadness pierces through.” – the Buddha
It may seem a little unorthodox to start a Christmas blog with a quotation from the Buddha, but, in the quote above, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) capitalizes on something very apt for this time of year.
Buddhism goes much further than the simple statement of the quote I’ve used, as it includes happiness itself in its definition of suffering; according to Buddhism, even joy is transitory and vulnerable to sadness.” Attachment, in Buddhism, is what leads to suffering, and things that make you happy are often things you are attached to. Obviously I, as a Christian, don’t go that far, but the statement is not devoid of truth.
There is so much to be happy about during the Christmas season. The gifts, the family, the holiday cheer, and general atmosphere. But many of us often catch ourselves pondering the sadness of this time of year. Feeling alone in the crowd, feeling compassion for those who are less fortunate, feeling uncomfortable around family who we don’t talk to very often.
Christmas is a joyful season, but sadness often sits amidst the hustle and bustle of the “most wonderful time of the year.” Christmas can, for many, be punctuated by melancholy alongside, or even instead of happiness.
Concepts of happiness and jubilation highlight many of the carols and general tone of the Christmas season. However, Christmas invites us to something much deeper. Christmas isn’t about wrapping up a strange and troubling year with a festival of simple human pleasures. Traditionally, Christmas is about joy piercing the sadness fully and forever. The year of “AD 1” was every bit as mixed and weird as 2019.
The first Christmas
Mary and her little family might not have been dealing with an American election on the horizon filled with partisan ugliness, the politics and intricacies of climate change, race relations, borders, BREXIT, and Aleppo. But, they did have Emperor Augustus, flexing his despotic muscles in a world-wide census that was designed to extract more taxes and tighten his grip on his vassal states. They had the brutality of Herod the Great, a man who killed his own children out of paranoia, and thought nothing of doing the same to the infants of Bethlehem.
Then there was the unplanned and rather scandalous pregnancy Mary was dealing with. Coupled with a 120km journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem (most likely on foot, with all due respect to the donkeys portrayed in our Christmas cards). When the very-soon-to-be expecting couple arrived, there was no room but a manger.
The whole story is very strange and mixed. Sadness and joy accompany one another in a narrative of high emotions, anxiety, and strife that we, as the modern reader familiar with the story, don’t often pick up on.
The gospel writers seem to emphasize all this strangeness by repeating the words “in a manger.” The phrase appears three times in quick succession in Luke’s second chapter (2:7, 12, 16). Luke is not simply being repetitive, he’s making a point. We’re so used to the image of baby Jesus lying in a manger that we don’t see the abject strangeness of the setting. A manger is an animal feeding area. Whatever the exact meaning of the term (feeding trough, animal stay, barn corner), Luke repeats it three times for the reader to get the point.
Chiefly: God has stepped on to the stage at the lowest point on earth – an infant, squeezed out of the guest room, relegated to the place where the animals sleep.
God brought down low
In other words, it’s as “bottom of the ladder” as you could possibly get. At the very moment that Augustus is making decrees as the ruler of the known world, and Herod is seething in his palace, God enters stage right. Not on the clouds, asserting his power and dominance, not with all the strength and might he rightly has. But in humility. Doing so with a profound statement that he is turning all our preconceived notions completely upside down.
One of the most beautiful, yet often overlooked, components to this story is Mary’s reaction to the news of her Son. In church tradition we call her carol The Magnificat:
“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name; from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
Amidst all the interpretations of Christmas that we hear at this time of year from clergy, advertisers, politicians, and journalists, we might benefit from listening to the mother who sits at the centre of it all. According to Mary, Christmas is about God scattering the proud, bringing down unjust rulers, lifting up the humble. It’s about God turning things upside down—which ironically is the right way up to begin with.
And God accomplishes all of this not “from on high,” like the decree of Augustus, or the brutality of Herod; instead, God achieves his purposes from below in the lowliness of a manger. With shepherds, livestock, and foreign magi as the first witnesses.
Christmas is about God turning things upside down—which ironically is the right way up to begin with.
Every detail about the Christmas story (and the subsequent life of Jesus as well), states that God will reverse the mess and do so by first getting his own hands dirty. God conquers by humbling himself, he will heal by being wounded, he will save us by sacrificing himself. The manger is a throne, and works as a beacon of how God intends to turn everything upside down.
Grace triumphs over dominance, mercy over force, and Mary’s song will be the world’s song. Joy will pierce through the sorrow and sadness, fully and forever.