Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. This piece was originally composed for America’s National Public Radio.
We hear a lot of complaints this time of year about the commercialization of Christmas or the so-called “war on Christmas.” But I wonder if believers aren’t ignoring a much more serious problem: the sentimentalizing of the Christmas story.
You know what I mean: Joseph and Mary, smartly dressed, ride bravely into Bethlehem in the dead of night and cheerfully turn a stable into a maternity ward. Various farm animals provide local color. Foreign dignitaries offer impractical gifts. And a chorus of angels announces peace on earth to all men. That’s pretty much the story line, delivered faithfully in school plays, greeting cards, nativity scenes and, I suspect, in more than a few sermons.
Yet after reading a “Holy Christmas Day” sermon, preached by Martin Luther in 1534, I was struck by its lack of sentimentality. There is, of course, a cord of celebration in his message. But it is “joy in the midst of suffering”—joy that requires, according to Luther, “a defiant state of mind” to meet the struggles and sorrows of this life.
The angels may proclaim peace on earth, Luther says, but “the kingdom of the world is characterized by stealing, robbery, murder…war and bloodshed. In summary, Luther warns, “on earth there is nothing but lack of peace.” That sounds like a fair description of our world, whether it’s the streets of many American cities after dark, or downtown Baghdad in broad daylight.
Many religious skeptics do not reject the Christmas story; they reject a childish caricature of the actual story. But mature faith, the faith of a Luther, is forged amid the bewildering and burdensome facts of everyday life.
The gospel stories do not hide these facts from us. Even as Mary is told that she will give birth to the Messiah, for example, she is warned that a sword of grief will pierce her soul—and it does. Likewise, the birth of Jesus prompted a ruthless despot, King Herod, to order the execution of every male boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. Think about the parents of those boys: There was as much weeping that Christmas season as there was rejoicing.
Put away the sentimental illusions about life, Luther seemed to be saying. As one historian described Luther’s insight: All Christians “live on the razor’s edge of faith and despair, freedom and bondage.” Here is a faith that does not ignore the heart of darkness in our lives; the deep mystery of evil remains.
Yet the hope of this story, a hope that engages the mind as well as the soul, is that the evil will not remain forever: God himself—here now among us, in this crib of straw—will overcome it.