Welcome to the season formerly known as Christmas. How did we get here? Has our society lost its mind? It seems that with regard to the celebration of Christmas the answer is clearly, "yes." As a point of interest ...
In 1247 the sheriff of London, a man named Simon FitzMary founded a priory for the sisters and brethren of the order of the Star of Bethlehem just outside the city walls. It was used, as one of its special purposes, for the housing and entertainment of the bishop and canons of St. Mary of Bethlehem, its mother church, and thereby became known as the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem.
By 1330, records show that the priory had become a hospital and that by 1403 some of its patients began to remain there permanently. When King Henry VIII later dissolved the Catholic monasteries in Britain, the priory was given to the city of London and, in 1547, officially sanctioned as an insane asylum which soon became infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the insane and the clamor, commotion, and pandemonium that could be heard emanating from within it. Because the local residents spoke in a dialect that didn't quite live up to the King's English, their cockney pronunciation of Bethlehem came out as "bedlam."
So, in a way that only human beings could contrive, the word we now use to describe lunacy and chaos actually has its source in the name of the city of Jesus' birth: Bethlehem.
Today's news stories simply reflect the sad link we have created for ourselves in turning the birth of Christ into a consumerist marketing frenzy. The lunatics are not only running the asylum, we created it.
The irony in the linguistic morphing of Bethlehem into Bedlam goes beyond the modern parallel between a British insane asylum and the month of December in an American shopping mall. We have not just got a problem with our perspective -- we have a problem with our theology.
In the songs we sing, the cards we send, and the seasonal movies we watch, we have come to see Christmas as a season of joy, of giving, of love, and of family. Nothing is wrong with any of these, of course. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that these are the heart of Christmas. Each descends from a more central fact about Christmas that is closely related to another of our favorite Christmas phrases but misunderstood just the same. Linus made it famous in the Charlie Brown Christmas. You can watch it here for old times' sake if you wish, but here is what Linus is quoting:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is [Messiah] the Lord. "This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."The phrase I'm talking about is right there at the end: "Peace On Earth." Do you see it? I hope not -- because it's not there.
Though it's the title of many a Christmas card and the advertising on many a holiday shopping bag, you might notice that is also not what the text actually says. It's not even what Linus says. You may also notice that the entire passage is not about our joy, or our giving, or our love, or our families -- it is focused on God himself.
It is not unusual (in fact, it is human nature) to turn things that are supposed to be about God into things about us. It is also not unusual for us to twist the meaning of things just a tad when we do so. And that's where the "Peace on Earth" thing comes in. It makes us feel good to say that Christmas is our hope for "peace on earth" but first we have to recognize that, once again, the peace is not a promise for us in our worldly relations -- God knows that hasn't proved true over the 2000 years since Jesus' birth -- instead, Biblical translators point out that ...
"The meaning seems to be, not that divine peace can be bestowed only where human good will is already present, but that at the birth of the Savior God’s peace rests on those whom he has chosen in accord with his good pleasure."Do you see the difference?
It is not that world peace broke out on that cold winter morning in Bethlehem; it is that God came down in human covering to offer the only possible way of reconciliation between His perfect moral goodness and the bedlam that has broken out since we staged our human rebellion against Him.
We've been at war. The peace we're offered is between us and God.
The joy comes in realizing that to be true. The giving and love come in mimicking the selflessness we witnessed in the gift He gave that cost us nothing. Our families are the means by which we replicate and disseminate that love "for all the people." The difference is subtle but imperative; each of these things is impossible to celebrate fully, or practice appropriately, unless we first make peace with our Creator and Messiah.
Though I don't know that I've ever seen it used as a Christmas card, I can't imagine a better representation of what we Bedlamites have made Christmas into than the fresco on the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo titled, "The Creation of Adam." In the most gracious act in human history, the Creator himself reached down to touch us in human form, while we appear only vaguely interested. Look at the way God is stretching His arm down to man -- and at the way the first Bedlamite halfheartedly reaches back.
May we all celebrate this Christmas with the intention of divorcing ourselves from the accuracy of Michelangelo's artful depiction of our state. May we all replace "Peace on Earth" with "Peace with God" and recognize the power in the subtle difference.
I want to give credit to Greg Koukl who, on his 12/7/2008 Stand To Reason podcast, articulated the core meaning of the Luke 2 passage cited above as I've addressed it here.