Will Willimon: Ambiguous Good News at Christmas


The old church calendar, in its wisdom places immediately after the joyful feast of the Nativity, the day of St. Stephen (December 26), first martyr of the Church in Acts and the gospel text as Matthew 2:13-18, story of the bloody massacre of the boy babies. New birth and nativity, the cross and sacrifice get all mixed up in the gospel. When will we ever learn that nothing truly new, no large move of God occurs without some pain. Blood and birth go together.

At Christmas we read from Isaiah 61:10, "I will rejoice in the LORD." The white upon the altar proclaim Christmas and its Sundays as season of unrestrained joy, fitting response to this the "fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). But then the Christmas gospel (Luke 2:25-40) introduces us to two old people who have been waiting a long time for time's fullness, Simeon and Anna. These two marginalized, fringe characters, "little people" who emerge from out of nowhere, have their say, then recede again into the darkness, are apparently the only people up at the Temple who know what is going on. To them is given the eyes to see and voices to say what God is doing in the world in this little baby. So much for the biblical scholars, priests, theologians, and government planners, Luke seems to say. If you really want to know what's really going on, ask the people on the bottom or out on the fringe.

We who live in a society which has ways of maginalizing our very old and our very young ought to sit up and take note.

Simeon's words expand our notions of "blessings." Whatever "salvation" (Luke 2:30) is at work for Israel, whatever joy there is to be had at the Nativity, it is no simple joy, no cheap salvation. Simeon's talk of falling and rising, of opposition and piercing swords (2:34-35) invites some sober reflection upon the depth and complexity of God's ways among us. Simeon offers a helpful corrective against the yuletide tendency to float off into superficial sentimentalities, to reduce our testimony to a Christmas card slogan or our salvation songs to advertizing jingles. The Nativity, as Simeon says, is about social dislocation, about confused parents, and dark forebodings. Caesar has an answer for old Jews who get too uppity with their singing -- his answer is a sword. On the hill beyond the Bethlehem manger, there is a cross awaiting a suitable victim.

Now that the yuletide commercial buying and selling and getting and giving is at last spent, now that the surrounding world has at last tired of Christmas and is gearing up for New Year's parties, the church is left to ponder the true significance of what has been born among us. Our salvation is coming to us, but it won't be cheap. We are not only given joy in the birth of the Christchild, but also a risky assignment. This is what the church means when it says, "rejoice." Soberly, reflectively, joyously, thankfully we gather in our churches during Christmastide to ponder the deep, costly nature of our salvation.

William H. Willimon

[Taken with permission from the weekly message from Bishop Will Willimon, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]