Born to Die
As we continue meditating on the meaning of Advent, we are not really resisting attempts to make Christmas meaningless as we are fighting with alternative meanings. There is no such thing (in the last analysis) as a vacuum holiday, a celebration without a point. Attempts to neutralize Christmas are simply an intermediate step—and the alternative meanings are waiting in the wings.
“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
Simeon was a great man of faith, an Old Testament saint who was waiting faithfully for the consolation of Israel. By the grace of God, he was permitted to live long enough to see the Messiah as an infant. But he was not just a man of faith; he was given a prophetic word. Among other things, he blessed Joseph and Mary both (v. 34), and then turned to Mary and gave her a particular word. The child was destined to be a divider. On the one hand, he would bring about the fall and rising of many in Israel, which was a good thing (v. 34). On the other hand, he would be “for a sign” to be spoken against (v. 34). Not everyone would receive the Messiah with glad shouts of acclaim. Simeon hints that more than just speaking against Him would be involved, because he predicted that a sword would be run through Mary’s soul (v. 35). This is a clear indication that Mary would live to see the crucifixion, which did happen (Jn. 19:26-27). The fact that Jesus would for a sign to be spoken against was in order to reveal the condition of many hearts (v. 35).
What does it mean to say that alternative or competitive meanings for Christmas are positioning themselves? Usually this comes out when someone points to something that everyone is supposed to acknowledge as problematic, and says something like, “We have to get away from this problem or that one, and get back to the true meaning of Christmas.” The fact that the problems are so obvious is used in a trick to make us think that the proposed meaning is self-evident also. What are some of those false solutions?
Sentimentalism—a sentimental Christmas is a Christmas without conflict. Sin brought conflict and violence into the world, and so in a very real sense, Christians are enemies to the way of death. But note this: death is our enemy. We cannot rid the world of conflict without conflict. But it must be the God-ordained kind of conflict, as Simeon foresaw. The pseudo-problem that people point to is the mere existence of conflict, never mind who is right or wrong.
Moralism—a moralistic Christmas is a Christmas without sin. People are changed (if they need to be changed) the way Scrooge is transformed in A Christmas Carol. They are changed by simply changing their minds, and giving somebody a goose or something festive. This kind of Pelagianism is not what we are commemorating. But Simeon’s prophecy takes real sin into account. Note the prophetic language of judgment—falling and rising, a sign that is hated, a sword piercing the soul of a godly woman, and the revelation of many hearts. The pseudo-problem that is raised here is the problem of “negativity.” But when Christ was born, our world was cold and black.
Spiritualism—a spiritualistic Christmas is a Christmas without matter. But when Simeon blesses Joseph and Mary, he is doing so because they are there in the Temple with a baby in their arms. The Lord was taken up in Simeon’s arms (v. 28). Jesus was a baby, a material gift. We do not celebrate Christmas by trying to back-pedal away from the world of material things. The pseudo-problem here is the warning against “materialism,” as though matter were somehow inherently a problem. Idolatry is a problem, but that can occur with thoughts and virtual reality as easily as with fudge and presents. Remember that it was Judas who wondered why the precious ointment was poured on Christ’s feet instead of being given to the poor. Another manifestation of this problem is the idea that Christ’s advent was somehow apolitical. But Herod didn’t make that mistake.
A Sword to Pierce the Soul:
We have noted before that the weeping of Rachel for her children is part of the Christmas story. Nativity sets should have models of Herod’s soldiers in them, and nativity sets ought not to have little drummer boys. This was part of the story. But we should note also that Simeon included the violence that would be directed against Christ, and which Mary would feel in her soul, and he included this in the story from the very beginning. Earlier in the chapter, we read that Mary treasured up in her heart what the shepherds had said, and it says that she pondered them (v. 19). Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he gathered his account of these things from eyewitnesses (1:2). Clearly, one of his chief sources was Mary. From whom did he find out about Simeon? Again, when Luke was writing, Mary was the only eyewitness of that event. And she clearly remembered what Simeon had told her. She was preparing herself for the crucifixion, in some measure, from the infancy of Jesus on. But she also knew that this prophetic word came to her in the context of a blessing.
Blessings Have a Story Arc:
Simeon said that there would be falling and rising. Blessings are not static. When Simeon told Mary about the pain that was coming, he had already said that the baby in his arms was the Lord’s “salvation” (v. 30). Mary knew, from Simeon’s mouth, that Jesus was the Christ (v. 26). Mary knew that this was a story that would not end in disaster. It would have a disaster in it, but not in the final chapter. The gospels are not tragedies in any sense. They are not comedies either, if we take comedy as referring to something humorous. They are comedies in a much deeper and more profound sense than this. Christ was born to die, but He died so that He could be the first born from among the dead (Col. 1:18).
The Full Gospel:
If we tell the Christmas story carefully, taking note of all the things that the writers of the scriptural accounts include, we find ourselves telling the entire story of salvation. The story includes the world, and everything in it. He came to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.