The Dark Shadow Over Christmas
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas morning has come and gone. It’s only been a day, but it’s been long enough that we’re getting back into the routine of our normal daily lives. The joy of the season has ended—and to tell the truth, it probably seems as though it ended a couple weeks ago, considering how much effort it takes to get ready for Christmas.
For Mary and Joseph, the joy had not yet ended. Jesus was forty days old. As a good Jewish family, Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to Jerusalem so that He could be presented at the Temple, according to the Law of Moses. He had already been circumcised, marked with the sign of the Old Testament covenant, at the tender age of eight days; this was the next requirement. This was meant to be a joyous time for this new family. Although Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he had already accepted the responsibility to raise Jesus as his own. Mary had already spoken her acceptance and sung her song of joy for the Messiah that she had borne in her womb. They were going to raise Him as would any good Jewish family would raise a son, and that meant obedience to the Law. They would bring Him to the Temple for the appropriate sacrifices.
What started out as a joyous family occasion suddenly became more solemn when the family encountered Simeon. Holding the Infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon spoke of his own death, now that his eyes had seen the salvation which God had promised to His people. And then he said something that brought their joy up short. He said, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against—yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
The Holy Spirit was resting upon Simeon, and through the Holy Spirit he was able to see what was to come for the blessed holy Child in his arms. This Child would be the salvation of the world—both Israel and the Gentiles—but He would also be despised and rejected, crucified at the hands of the very people He came to save. Mary would be an eye-witness to this, watching first as Nazareth rejected her Son, and then standing at the foot of the cross as her Son died there to redeem the world.
This same specter hangs over the Church in the midst of our Christmas celebration. We cannot look at the manger at Bethlehem without seeing the cross of Golgotha looming over it. If you look at the calendar of the Church Year, you see that today is the Feast of St. Stephen the martyr, tomorrow is the Feast of St. John the apostle and evangelist, and Tuesday is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children ages two and under who were massacred—martyred by King Herod as he sought to eliminate the rival King whom the Wise Men came from the East to worship. While the Church always rejoices at Christmas, it has always understood that it cannot let itself become inebriated with the joy of Christmas morning, lest we forget that Jesus was born to be a sacrifice to atone for our sins.
The world has made it very difficult for us to keep Christmas holy, and we have been willing accomplices. We can complain about how Christmas has become a secular holiday, but we participate and even revel in the secular festivities. Christmas has become about black Friday, about the joy on our faces and on the faces of our children as we hand out the presents under the tree. It has become about children and how cute they are dressed in their costumes as they sing carols. Not only do we take the Christ out of Christmas; we have even taken the Mass—the divine service—out of Christmas for the sake of what we find under our trees and on our tables on Christmas morning.
Simeon knew all too well what Christmas was about. Simeon saw in the Jesus child the Consolation of Israel, but he knew that consolation would come at a cost—the rejection, suffering and death of that same Child he held in his arms. Christmas does not happen in a vacuum. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter and the Ascension come as a unit. Christmas means nothing without the blood of Christ. If Jesus is not born, He cannot die upon the cross carrying the burden of your sins. If He does not die, He cannot rise from the grave, raising you with Him. But if He is not raised from the dead, His death has done nothing for you. And if He does not die, then His birth means nothing. These things all work together. Simeon saw it all, and he warned Mary that this Child would suffer—and because her Child would suffer and be rejected and killed, Mary would feel the spear in her own heart.
Mary would observe the fulfillment of all these things. But she also witnessed that her Son went willingly to His work. She watched as Jesus bore the rejection in His own hometown. She watched as He endured His trial, listening to the false accusations leveled against Him without a word on His own behalf. She watched as her Son hung on the cross, dying a death He did not deserve, bearing sins He did not commit. Jesus endured all this willingly for the consolation of Israel—and not just for Israel, but to bring light to the Gentiles.
The infant Jesus whom Simeon held in his arms is the same Jesus that you will receive in your mouth today. The Consolation of Israel is also the Consolation of Campbell Hill. It’s true that Christmas means nothing without the blood of Christ. When you receive the body and blood of Jesus in His Holy Supper, you celebrate His incarnation: how He comes to you as Immanuel, God with us in the flesh! Salvation and the glory of God are revealed to you here. You celebrate Christmas and Good Friday and Easter all together in this Feast. And though the cross hung as a shadow over the stable and manger of Bethlehem for Mary for a time, it stands for you and for all as a beacon, for it is the instrument upon which Christ bore your sins, shining as brightly as the star that guides you to the manger.
The glory of God, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life are found in that little child whom Simeon held in his arms. By the forgiveness and life won for you by that same Jesus, you too will be able to depart in peace, having seen the salvation prepared for you. And as you wait for the day when you depart in peace, you receive the same blessing which Simeon received with Jesus in his arms: the Consolation of Israel—and, indeed, the Consolation of all those who wait on the Lord. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.