Christmas didn't change anything.
At least it can seem that way. And that should give us great consolation.
We're not told what happened to the shepherds after that fateful first Noel, but we can imagine that they might have gotten a little bit discouraged.
They heard angels sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo and proclaim peace on earth. Then the angels left, and peace didn't come. Mysterious Magi followed a star from faraway lands and laid gifts at the feet of the newborn king. Then the Magi left, and the only effect of their coming was to provoke King Herod to order a brutal, bloody massacre.
By the time those shepherds, the first recipients of the Good News, were old men, the news still looked bad. John the Baptist was the newest prophet, and his message was the same as always: Keep waiting.
If the shepherds followed the career of Jesus at all, it would seem to offer little consolation. Jesus appeared on the scene, did his miracles, caused a stir — then lost most of his followers, was tortured and killed.
Who could blame them if they got discouraged? We get discouraged, too.
We know Christianity did a lot of good — but only in the past. Christians built Western Civilization, but now Western Civilization has abandoned Christ. The good he did is disintegrating. God promised the Church that it would prevail against the gates of hell, but that promise seems unreal. We've just finished the 20th century, marked by world wars and crimes against God, and entered the 21st century, marked with more of the same plus terrorism, the destruction of the family and anti-Christian persecution worldwide.
So what was the point of Christmas, after all?
If we complain that God seems to have abandoned his promises, we're in good company.
God's teaching method has always been the same. He makes a big promise, makes us wait an interminable length of time, then fulfills the promise in an unexpected way that exceeds all expectations.
God promised Abraham that his descendents would number as the stars, then made him wait for millennia. But today, Christians, Jews and Muslims consider themselves sons of Abraham.
God told the Israelites about a promised land, then left them wandering in the desert for decades. But the Holy Land is the center of international attention to this day.
Kids love Christmas’ combination of almost unbearable anticipation followed by generous surprises.
So does God.
The Jewish people's anticipation for the Messiah lasted centuries. But they didn't expect the generous surprise of God himself taking flesh to live among them. Christ himself lived a life of expectation and waiting amid suffering and apparent defeat. He was the King of Kings who told his followers to pray that his Kingdom would some day come. He was the Creator of the world who rejected the world when it was offered to him in the three temptations. He was the Prince of Peace who was hounded by enemies from his infancy to his execution.
The message of Christ's own life was clear: The joys of this earth will always be bittersweet. Look for greater joy elsewhere. When you find happiness on earth, know that God is giving you a preview of a greater happiness he has in store, elsewhere.
In this way, Christmas changed everything.
Life on earth used to be a place where all happiness is fleeting and death has the final word. Now it is a land of exile where God builds our anticipation for the unimaginable joys he has in store for us later.
The sufferings on earth used to be simply a punishment for the sins of men and women. Now they are a participation in the redemption of mankind. Darkness used to symbolize the world's doom. Now that symbol is turned on its head, because the deepest darkness is overcome so easily by the smallest light.
The truth is, God is fulfilling his promises even as we speak and, when he's done, we'll be surprised once again at how much he exceeds our expectations.
Just look at the words he uses to describe what we have in store: The Kingdom of God. The heavenly banquet. The New Jerusalem. A new heaven and a new earth.
We need to remember Abraham, Moses and the ages of waiting that came before our time. We who have the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, should certainly be able to muster as much patience and hope as they did.
After all, the message of Christmas — from the stockings at home to the crèche at Church — is that we can hardly even imagine what we have to look forward to.
- December 18-31, 2005