Imagine for a moment the utter despair of the disciples on Holy Saturday. For three long years they had toiled ceaselessly with their Master, leaving livelihoods, families, and everything else behind. They had loved him devotedly, spending their days learning the deepest wisdom from him, accompanying him on wearying journeys, enduring scorn for his sake, eating and sleeping with him, and witnessing his jaw-dropping miracles—all the while confident that they would enjoy an exalted place in his earthly kingdom, which would certainly be ushered in at any moment.
Then began Holy Week, which was the week of shattered hopes for these faithful men. Their beloved Jesus, whom they expected to utterly destroy the powers of evil and national oppression, was stripped of both his clothes and his dignity. He was savagely beaten, mocked, and tortured. Finally, he was nailed to a gibbet, bloodied beyond recognition, for everyone in the world to gawk at.
The advent of Christmas is one of the busiest and noisiest times of year—a season of getting and spending in which we lay waste our credit cards. It should be a holy time, but it has become an orgy of consumerism in the temples of commerce. It is not peaceful, and it is certainly not silent.
It is a sign of the shrinking of the modern soul and the jaded and scientific cynicism of the contemporary age that we have nearly lost our capacity to wonder—even at the greatest of miracles. We have replaced it with a materialistic obsession and a voracious greed. But it is wonder that would make us feel small and selfless, that would cause us to give. It is materialism that makes us feel large and greedy and causes us to take. We have traded our souls for stuff, and we have lost them.
But despite, or perhaps because of, the materialism that is so prevalent, it is obvious that humanity is desperate for something to believe in, something to wonder at. The shallow satisfaction of Things dies as soon as there is something new to be had. Which is to say, immediately. And so we grasp after something deeper, something unbelievable to believe in.
Nowhere is this better evidenced than Hollywood. The unending theme of Christmas movies is the unbelieving cynic who needs to gain or regain the “spirit” of Christmas—that spirit being a sense of wonder and joy and faith in something that cannot be understood.
Pop culture is very often right about what is wrong, but it is almost always wrong about what is right, and this certainly true of Christmas movies. In these films, Hollywood has indeed stumbled on a profound theological truth: We must believe, we must wonder like a child at something to be truly happy. But it is what we should believe in and what we should wonder at that they go wrong. For the thing that brings the spirit of Christmas in these movies is almost always the wrong thing: It is family, it is being together, it is believing in Santa Claus.
Now, these things are good things, and even the story of Santa—which has become somewhat of an obsession—is a story with merits. It is one of giving, of faith, of asking and receiving, of childlike simplicity. It is a story just strange enough to be fiction. But it is not strange enough. We need a story yet more wonderful.
Fortunately, truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and there is a more wonderful story. It is the story of a small town in the Judean countryside, Bethlehem, the City of David, and what happened there. In this tiny town, a weary peasant girl—with God in her womb—was helped by her husband into a cave filled with the aroma of animals. Here, deep in the night, an infant cry startled the stillness, and in the dark, the Light of the world was born. Infinity had invaded space and eternity time. God had become a baby, and behind the starry curtain of heaven, angels danced to see it.
In the pungent dampness of the cave, the loving mother laid the great Strength of the Ages in a manger. The animals, unlike the men who had had no room for Him, were only too happy to share their feeding trough with God. Soon, the divine child was asleep with the first weariness he had ever known—but not the last he was to know. It was the weariness of tiny muscles and strained lungs. It was the pain and helplessness of humanity.
At this story we shrug, we pass by with a sweet and sentimental smile. We would prefer Santa Claus. It is only ignorance that makes it so. But this is the story really worthy of wonder, the story of the divine invasion, the story that is too good to be true—the True story. It is the most terrible and stupefying of miracles. It is the miracle that quite literally shattered the world. For in that tiny struggling form of a helpless child, a Vastness beyond vastness had become too small to ignore, and God forevermore took on the face, even the body of a man.