If you haven't read my blog post "The Truth Behind Santa Claus," please take a couple of minutes to do so.
It talks about the need for people to have hope in something yet to come, faith that there's something -- someone! -- loving and righteous that's larger than themselves, and the understanding that their choices have consequences (sometimes expressed as What Goes Around, Comes Around). Cultures around the world hold these values, and even children understand these principles.
This post, below, follows those thoughts a little farther.
A few months ago, I attended the estate sale of a local gentleman who had been an architect and artist. The items for sale included many of his blueprints and renderings for homes and businesses, as well as a few of his set designs for stage productions.
When I saw one of his set designs for a Christmas pageant, I noticed that something was missing from it that exemplifies what Christmas is really all about. I plunked down my dollar and brought it home.
Take a look at the architect's rendering, printed on a large piece of thin paper. It has the bright light from the wonderful star, the little town, beautiful colors in the night sky. It even has a rather ornate stable -- everything we need to know that this drawing is about Christmas.
What intrigued me, though, is not what the artist drew, but what he left out, or rather barely suggested in the picture. He left an odd-shaped white space in the center of the Christmas drawing, with a few light pencil strokes to show that something, someone -- no, three someones -- are missing from the picture.
The picture would only be complete when the actors took center stage in the Christmas pageant.
If you know the Christmas story that's presented in the ancient Scriptures, you know that the three people missing in the artist's work are Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Each character is essential for the Christmas story to be complete.
Mary and Joseph had hope: they had something to look forward to. All of her young life, Mary had heard the many prophecies that a Messiah, a Savior would someday come, not just for Israel but for the whole world. But Mary never could have predicted it would come true in her lifetime, and through her own life.
An angel appeared to Mary and told her that she, who'd never been with a man, would have a child, and that child would literally be the Son of God -- God with us -- that very Messiah that the ancient prophets foretold. Mary also needed faith to trust, to believe that what the angel said was true and that God would sustain her through the very unusual circumstances that were about to happen. Mary's choice to trust what the angel said, had consequences.
Joseph needed faith to trust in something inexplicable that was more powerful than himself. Joseph was pledged to be Mary's husband. When he found out she was pregnant and knew he wasn't the father of her child, he planned to quietly break off their relationship.
But before Joseph could do so, he faced what was probably the biggest challenge of his spiritual life. An angel visited him in a dream, and told him that the baby Mary was carrying was not the result of some other man's will, but a miracle. God Himself had chosen to make an extraordinary entrance into this ordinary world by fulfilling all those prophecies -- right in the middle of Joseph's life. Joseph made the choice to trust God, and stay with Mary and the baby.
(Note: Why shouldn't God use extraordinary means to signal His own arrival on earth? How else would we have known, except through the fulfillment of the prophecies and the miracle of the Incarnation, that Jesus was not just another little Jewish kid? His birth was, after all, the start on earth of the one extraordinary life that changed the ordinary world for all of time.)
Jesus is the central figure in the blank spot in our Christmas story. He exemplifies all three things we need for Christmas to be complete: hope, faith and the understanding that our choices have consequences.
I'll turn to British author Elizabeth Goudge to describe Him, via her 1951 book God So Loved the World. The Christmas story is excerpted in her 1967 work A Christmas Book. (I found a copy of the latter, of course, at an estate sale.)
Here's the background, in Goudge's words:
This is the story of an almost unbelievable humbling, nothing less than the story of the life that God lived when he came down from heaven and lived upon earth as a man.... [In the person of Jesus] God lived and died for us men and for our salvation.
The fact of this humility is so glorious that it is beyond human understanding, but the limitations of race and time and place put a sort of picture-frame about the glory, so that we can look at it without being blinded. And we must look at it, because the picture in the frame is the most important thing in this world, or in any other.
To have a relationship with God, we need to have faith that He exists and that He loves us and is interested in having a relationship with us. (Note: God is not interested in us having some form of "religion." Any fool can do "religious" things and not have love for God and other people in her or his heart.) This relationship gives us hope for our future with Him.
Man had forgotten what God looked like. In the beginning God made man and loved him, and man looked up at God, and loved him also.... Man loved God of his own choice because God had given him free will. Unless God had given man the gift of choice he would have been incapable of love, because it is the nature of love that it cannot be compelled, but must be freely given.
As Goudge illustrates, our choices have consequences:
But now man did the most dreadful thing that he has ever done in the whole course of his history. He turned away from God and put himself in the centre instead of God. He chose to love and serve himself instead of God, and for a man to think himself more worthy of attention than God is pride, the most detestable of all the sins and the root of all the others....
Goudge describes what God did, to shore up our faith and give us hope:
...The great love of God chose to do two things: to show himself to man all over again in his eternal beauty, and to lift up the great weight of sin that kept man a prisoner and carry it away, that man might be free to rise up and turn from self to God, and to serve and love him as he used to do in the beginning.
God, in the person of Jesus Christ, also made choices:
And the way of God's choice was the way of this humbling. He came down to earth and lived as a man among men, that they might see and hear and touch eternal beauty, and he took upon himself the dreadful suffering and death that are the result of sin, though he himself was sinless, and in this way lifted the load and carried it away.
This great showing-forth and deliverance God accomplished for us in the person of his Son, who is one with him, the Word of God, the brightness of the everlasting light and the image of his goodness.... The suffering and death endured for us by him are the suffering and death of God.
But he has still left to us the power of choice. We need not look at him and love him unless we want to. We need not turn from ourselves to him unless we choose. But if we have once looked at him, even though we have seen him only dimply, we find we cannot do anything else but try our very hardest to put him in the centre of our lives.