Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
I, like you, love the beautiful Christmas season with all its sentimental appeal. And I wish you all of this in abundance. But as we know, the first Christmas was anything but sentimental and featured great hardships: Urgent travel to Bethlehem in the ninth month of pregnancy, no room at the inn, the subsequent flight to Egypt and the murder of the Holy Innocents. It is almost as though Satan, knowing that God was up to something good, tried to smoke out, prevent and pursue and destroy this great work of God.
And this is exactly what Scripture attests in a version of the Christmas story seldom told among Christians today. Consider the “other” Christmas story that looks behind the external events and interprets the deeper meaning of them:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron rod.
...And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But the dragon was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
...Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (Rev. 12:1-5, 7-9)
Merry Christmas! While I have never seen this version of the story on a Christmas on a Hallmark card or a “made for TV” special, it is the deeper story, a more hidden but true picture of what was going on that dramatic and fateful night. The birth of Christ is (as John Eldredge one wrote in “Wild at Heart”) the Great Invasion, a daring raid by the ruler of the forces of Good into the universe’s seat of evil. Spiritually speaking, this is no silent night. It is D-Day. Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy....one of whom we rarely speak: Satan. Yet he is active, and involved.
Yes, it is a fierce spiritual war. It is war at Christmas! It is a war that was engaged that Christmas, whose definitive victory was won on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but whose wake still ripples forth in dramatic call to choose sides!
Yes, fellow Catholics, there is a dragon—even at Christmas. Sorry to get in the way of the tinsel and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there is a Satan, and he and his followers are to blame for most of the casualties you see in your family, in our culture and back through history.
Yet at Christmas there is also a Son who is born to us—and we name him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God , Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). And He shall reign forever. And thus it is a battle, terrible and yet great. Terrible, since it is to blame for most of the causalities we see in our family, in our culture and back through history. But great, since in its midst comes forth at Christmas our victorious Christ. He is the One who, by his grace, snatches us who have answered his call out of the great tribulation to be among those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb—yes, those who conquer by the Word of his testimony and by the Blood the Lamb (cf Rev 7:14; 12:11)
Sorry for such a non-traditional message. But something tells me that we Catholics who remain in the midst of the current culture wars have to regain a deeper sense of what was really going that Christmas, and this one too. For the danger is that we have become too nice for our own good and that we fail to recognize the battle to which we are summoned and which was engaged that first Christmas. Jesus the King of the Universe entered the territory of the “prince of this world” and began to take back territory from him.
And while the more paradoxical victory of the Cross cannot be forgotten, neither can the daring raid of Christmas night where the Lord advances against the foes, takes back territory, and inflicts on him the most serious blows. In the wailing of an infant can be heard a great war cry: “The long night of sin is over, the Light begins to shine, Arise O sleeper and Christ will give you light.”
And only in Christ can the angel’s song of “peace on earth” ever be truly found. Join him now in his great campaign of taking back territory from the terrible foe. An infant cries out; somewhere, a great Red Dragon is in terror, for he knows his time short.