Articles

The Chaos of Christmas

12/18/19

Josh Bales

Have you ever noticed how in the Christmas movies that they always seem to involve Christmas in chaos? For Charlie Brown, it’s commercialism. For George Bailey, it’s financial ruin. For Chevy Chase, it’s cousin Eddie and a violent, loose, squirrel.

Vanity Fair observed a few years ago out that it was Ralphie with his Red Ryder BB Gun and dysfunctional family in 1983 that upended the sentimental old order of Christmas movies by showing something every family could recognize, but I think the connection between chaos and Christmas goes back earlier than that . . . way earlier.

Songwriter Andrew Peterson describes the chaos poignantly:

It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground.

You could hear a woman cry in the alley ways that night

on the streets of David’s town.

And the stable wasn’t clean. The cobblestones were cold.

And little Mary full of grace with tears upon her face,

had no mother’s hand to hold.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the chaos of the very first Christmas included a shameful public scandal, frightening visits from other-worldly messengers, a harrowing escape from a maniacal and murderous politician, and a birthing room would have made Motel 6 look like a resort.


Have you ever noticed how in the Christmas movies that they always seem to involve Christmas in chaos? For Charlie Brown, it’s commercialism. For George Bailey, it’s financial ruin. For Chevy Chase, it’s cousin Eddie and a violent, loose, squirrel.


Matthew tells us, “When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit…”

It’s easy to read this story and forget that, for Joseph, as it would be for any unsuspecting husband in the months before his honeymoon, the news of Mary’s pregnancy meant betrayal at the deepest level. It meant, most likely, the loss of his future plans- a life together with Mary and whatever family they may have had. It also meant the end of a mutual financial arrangement between the couple’s two families.

Matthew goes on: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

More than just a story of personal betrayal, this unplanned (and inexplicable) pregnancy before marriage meant, in those days and in that culture, almost the certain punishment of death for Mary. Scholars point out that Joseph would have been within his rights according to contemporary customs to turn Mary in and let her face this punishment.

Are you feeling the “Christmas spirit” yet?

The chaos keeps coming:

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

In other words, God is asking Joseph to let go of what most men in that culture valued most: the continuation of one’s own family lineage through the natural birth and naming of a firstborn son.

Joseph’s chaos included losing this dream, too.


Maybe the reason we all connect with the chaos of Christmas specials is because they shine a light on the fundamental- but unsentimental- truth that our salvation appeared with suffering, that divinity arrived with disruption, and that Christmas came, all those years ago, in the midst of chaos.


On the third Sunday of Advent each year, my church prays a famous prayer used by Christians in worship since the 700s A.D.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . .

When I think of the chaos of Mary and Joseph’s Christmas, and our own, I’m tempted to qualify the petition with something like:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . .  but not with a job loss, Lord! Don’t come among us with that. And please don’t come among us with a trip to the hospital or a family argument

The Church has long pointed to Joseph as a model Christian father, and rightly so, because Saint Matthew concludes Joseph’s story like this:

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…

In other words, instead of quietly dismissing Mary, which could have been Joseph’s otherwise reasonable attempt to avoid the chaos, suffering, and disruption, he obeyed God.

Maybe the reason we all connect with the chaos of Christmas specials is because they shine a light on the fundamental- but unsentimental- truth that our salvation appeared with suffering, that divinity arrived with disruption, and that Christmas came, all those years ago, in the midst of chaos.

This year, instead of quietly dismissing the chaos, suffering, and disruptions, what if we engaged it with faith and obedience, trusting that God’s disruptive activity in our lives will lead, like it did for Joseph, to the welcoming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, I recorded an arrangement of Joy to The World that sought to capture the juxtaposition of the joy and chaos of Christmas. You can check it out below.

 

 Josh Bales is a Senior Fellow with the Colson Center, a singer/songwriter, as well as counselor and Anglican priest. 

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