In book club we are reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith. It is the story of a young girl growing up in hard times with a drunken father who dies, a determined mother, and a spoiled little brother. It is Christmas and they are in church. Francie, the young girl who is coming of age, looks at the elements of the Lord’s Supper on the altar and marvels about what she sees and believes. She pictures the altar as Calvary itself, and is in awe that the bread and the wine, now consecrated, ARE the body and blood of Jesus; the divine now here on earth. She muses: “It’s a beautiful religion”, “and I wish I understood it more. No. I don’t want to understand it all. It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery, like God Himself is a mystery.”
Mystery; that is what Christmas is, a mystery. That is why it is beautiful. A divine mystery. Some may see the mystery in the sentiment of youth looking back at the fading glow of what the world calls Christmas magic. There is indeed a glow of magic in all the lights, the decorations, the pictures with Santa at the mall. The scenes of snow-covered streets with sleighs and bands of Christmas carolers with mugs of hot cider and cookies fill the mind with wonder. Add to that family get togethers, candles, candy, presents, etc. and how can you not fall prey to the magic of visions of sugarplums dancing in your head. As we get older we come to understand some of these things and the glow fades. Santa is really just a Visa Bill. The cookies and candies, as well as the family dinner is a lot of work. The parties take on the weight of an obligation. And the sentimental Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, we know in our heart are not real, but a wishful façade. Where is the mystery of Christmas?
The mystery of Christmas is not any of these things. The things that make up so much of the American celebration of Christmas may be fun, they may create memories, and they may create a joyous HO, HO, HO for a short while, but that is where they end. There really is no mystery at all in these things.
But when we gather in church we encounter real mystery; things that are unexplainable. The liturgy, the readings, the hymns, they all point us to the real mystery that cannot be explained; the TRUE mystery of a child born in a manger in Bethlehem. God and Man. King of Creation and suffering Savior. It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery, like God Himself is a mystery. So many hymns try to explain it and yet it remains veiled in mystery.
“This is the Christ, our God most high, who hears your sad and bitter cry;
He will Himself your savior be. From all your sins to set you free.” 358 St 3
“O Savior, Child of Mary, Who felt our human woe; O Savior, King of Glory, who does our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray to the bright courts of heaven, and to the endless day.” 359 St 4
“Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face.
With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord at Thy birth, Jesus Lord at Thy birth.” 363 St 3
“Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nail, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, Hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!” 370 St 2
“He whom the sea and wind obey doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son, With us art one, Dost join us and our children in our weakness. 372 St 2
I could go on and on with hymns that simply marvel at the mystery our God in human flesh, coming in love to die that we might, with HIM, live. Christmas will soon be upon us. I pray that in the busyness of all that fades away, you will joy in beholding the mystery that is eternal. May we, like a young Francie, let go of any idea of understanding in order to simply marvel at the beauty of the mystery; the babe born in Bethlehem who joins himself with bread and wine to forgive our sins, and join us to Himself. In the word of Paul Gerhardt:
The world may hold her wealth and gold; But thou, my heart keep Christ as Thy true treasure.
To Him hold fast until at last a crown be thine and honor in full measure.” 372 St 6