There are few things in this world so joyful as the birth of a child. It’s the fulfillment of long expectation and months of patient waiting. The birth of a child carries with it all of the hope and promise of new life.
There are few things in this world more precious than the face of a newborn babe. It’s a face untouched and untroubled by the cares of this life. A child’s gaze is innocent and pure, unsullied by long years of habitual sins and passions.
An infant’s smile can melt all of our worries, if only for a moment. A baby’s coo draws us out of ourselves, out of the routine and drudgery that so often characterizes adult life. A child’s laugh kindles within us the memory of a time when we too were children, when our life was simpler and not so full of heartache and worry. The mere presence of a newborn infant clears away all the encrusted layers of cynicism and jadedness that accumulate on our souls day after day, from all of the little half-truths and indulgences we make for ourselves, telling ourselves that this is just the way of the world, this is what everyone does just to get by. The infant reminds us that we weren’t always this way, and suggests that maybe we don’t have to be this way after all. Maybe a better world is still possible. We hope the best for our children, we hope that their lives will be untouched by our own mistakes and sins and failings. We want to shield them from the cruelty and indifference of this fallen world, to strive for a world that doesn’t rob people, whether young or old, of the innocence and wonder of a child.
If the birth of even an ordinary child can inspire such feelings in even the hardest of hearts, then what joy should we not feel, as we gaze spiritually at the face of the pure, sinless, and divine Infant who is born this day? I don’t need to tell you, because I’m sure you all feel the abundant grace of this feast in your own hearts on this special day.
We all know the story of Christmas. Year after year, we hear all of the church hymns, we sing all of the carols, we watch the same old Christmas movies. For centuries, all of the wondrous events recorded in the Gospel about our Savior’s birth have occupied the imagination of countless saints, hymnographers, theologians, orators, poets, songwriters and storytellers. I have nothing to add to their chorus. I only urge you not to take it all for granted, not to lose sight of the magnitude of the wonder just because it’s been celebrated so many times and so many ways.
There is something so comforting and familiar about Christmas, something that is undoubtedly close to our hearts. But familiarity can dull our spiritual perception. There is also something ineffable and deeply mysterious about this Feast, but we can miss it if we rest content with mere sentimentality. Yes, a child is set before us. But this child is God. He is Emmanuel, God with us. The almighty Creator who holds all things in the palm of His hand is held in His mother’s arms as helpless babe. It’s a marvel that’s not ours to comprehend. We can only worship it with childlike faith and, filled with awe and wonder, lift our voices with the angels who sing: “Glory to God in the highest and earth peace, goodwill among men.”
When we look out at the world today, though, we may be tempted to ask, “Where is this promised peace? We see only strife and enmity, wars and rumors of wars. Everywhere we look, whether at home or abroad, there is bitter, intractable conflict. For all of the warm feelings and noble sentiments we experience today, is this not all just a sham, a self-deception? Just look at the whole sweep of the last 2,000 years of history. Clearly, Jesus’ birth didn’t fundamentally change anything. Conflict and suffering, misery and death are still the defining features of human life. So much, then, for peace and goodwill.”
If we only celebrated the Hallmark version of Christmas, perhaps such thoughts would be enough to dampen our joy. But like every true Christian, we ought to know that the peace of God is not the same as the peace of the world. Peace I give unto you, Christ says, not as the world gives give I unto you (Jn. 14:27); in the world ye shall have tribulation (Jn. 16:33). Even in His birth, Christ was no stranger to the tribulations of this world. There was no room for Him among the dwellings of men that night. Instead, He was born in the wilderness, in a cave used to stable animals. His first cradle was a feeding trough. No sooner was He born than the rich and mighty of this world sought His death. No sooner was He born than he became a refugee and an exile. Though He escaped to Egypt, 14,000 infants were slain so that a tyrant could maintain his bloody grip on power. Couldn’t Christ have stopped it? If He had willed, couldn’t all this have happened differently and more happily?
Peace I give unto you: not as the world gives give I unto you. God’s peace comes to us in the midst of this world’s chaos. We can only experience it when the peace of the world is at an end. This is the whole mystery of Christ’s first coming—not that He put an end to all human suffering and strife, but that He entered fully into it; so that now, even in the face of every human adversity, we can find the peace of God dwelling in our hearts, conquering every doubt and fear. Because of Christ’s birth this day, our hearts have the unspeakable assurance that, no matter what happens in our world and in each one of our lives, God is with us. Therefore shall we not fear when the earth is moved, and the mountains are carried into the heart of the seas, as King David sings. The rushings of the river make glad the city of God … The Lord of hosts is with us, our helper is the God of Jacob. (Ps. 45:3, 5, 8).
When we look at the babe in the manger, we feel all of the usual tender feelings inspired by the sight of a child. But we also sense something more, something that can scarcely be expressed in words, something that inexplicably lifts the weight of all our cares, calms our restless minds, and fills us with a peace that passes understanding. And as the babe’s serene, sinless face looks back at us, it seems to say wordlessly to our world-weary hearts, “Be still and know that I am God (Ps. 45:11). I am with you, and no one can be against you.” He is our peace, and the Savior of the world. Let us fall down and worship Him. Christ is born!