Posted by: Dan | December 8, 2004

Celebrating Torture?

It's coming on christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

– Joni Mitchell, River

You know, more and more, I have trouble viewing Christmas as a celebratory time of year. I mean, apart from all the Christian ranting about how this time of year has been co-opted by contemporary cultural paganism (“Jesus is the reason for the season!”), I'm not convinced that a Christian approach to Christmas – that of remembering the birth of Jesus – should be a cause of so much frivolous joy.

Certainly there is a joyous element to it. Jesus' birth signals God becoming human, God entering into our world, coming alongside of us to redeem us. God with a face. God we can know and love and hold and be held by. That surely inspires awe and celebration.

And yet how can we unrestrainedly celebrate that event when we know what it leads to? The birth of Jesus was just the first step of a journey of humiliation and suffering. God humbled. God made vulnerable. God as a child. A child destined for abandonment, torture, shame and death. Surely a cause of awe, that God should love us so dearly as to endure such things for us, but not so much a cause of frivolous joy. Christmas is the first step to a journey that culminates in the cross.

I wonder how much those who celebrate Christmas really understand suffering. I wonder how much those who sing the words, “Thank you for the cross” really understand what it entails. Saying thank you for the cross is like saying thank you for the rape of a loved one. Celebrating Christmas so lavishly and thoughtlessly is like celebrating the first step that leads to that loved one's rape.

~

Only in light of the resurrection can we thank God for the cross. And even then it is a thank you that we whisper, that we speak with tears on our cheeks. It is not a thank you for forms of torture but rather a thank you for a love so deep that it was willing to be tortured, and by being tortured set us free.

That's why I think Easter Sunday is the truly celebratory moment of the Christian calendar. New creation bursts into the old. Life is brought out of death and hope out of hopelessness. Humanity is reconciled to God and God is shown to triumph over even the most brutal forms of forsakenness.

This Christmas season, while the world celebrates and feasts, I think Christians would do well to step back and remember a child held by a breathless mother in a barn in Bethlehem. Awed by the miracle of birth, his tiny fingers clutching her thumb. Christians would do well to remember how that same mother would come to see her son beaten beyond recognition and hung naked before a crowd that mocked him as he died. His weathered hands outstretched and pierced. Christians would do well to remember that while the world celebrates we are called to mourn, and while the world feasts we are called to fast. During Christmas we need to remember the God who identified so deeply with those who are oppressed and forsaken that he entered into their forsakenness with them. This Christmas season let us remember that we are called to do the same.

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