About a year ago, my husband and I traveled across the chilly cornfields of Indiana to the frigid cornfields of Ohio to have our younger son baptized.
It was not quite, but almost, spur of the moment. A bishop, an old friend of my husband’s, would be visiting his mother for a few days after Christmas, and yes, he could certainly squeeze a baptism in. The parish church was available, the bishop’s sister and mother would be witnesses, and there you have it: insta-baptism.
Perfect timing. A baptism is a happy occasion centered on a baby. Christmas is another happy time centered on a baby, and a fine opportunity to focus ourselves on the vaunted Real Meaning of Christmas. Babies, love, and family. Comfort, joy, and peace.
But perhaps not so fast.
The discussion about Christmas in our society is endless and loud. The self-proclaimed defenders of Christmas go about daring salespeople to wish them “Happy Holidays,” boycotting businesses that sell “Holiday Trees,” and reminding one and all that Jesus is the Reason for the Season.
Which he is. But I say that many of the Defenders of Christmas have it almost as wrong as the secularists. Their vision of Christmas–centered on words, a rather generic baby, and nostalgic visions of families and fireplaces–actually gets no closer to the real Real Meaning of Christmas than do generic wishes for peace and joy in this holiday season.
What they forget, neglect or conveniently ignore is what we can not-too-dramatically call the Dark Side of Christmas.
The really traditional Christian remembrance of the Nativity is not about sweetness. It is about awe, fear, and trembling, and it is shot through with hints of suffering to come.
Mary, with a scandalous pregnancy. Joseph, courageous enough to take her on despite it. A birth among farm animals. The threat of death, from the very start, necessitating flight. Mary, told by the prophet Simeon that because of her son, her soul will be pierced by a sword (Luke 2:35).
We view the elements of the story in a nostalgic haze–how sweet to be born with the goats. But is it? Is it sweet? Would you want to give birth among goats?
How charming that Mary and Joseph had to wander before and after the birth of the child. Charming until you remember the reasons why, the doors shut in the face of a heavily pregnant woman, the threat of death from a jealous king.
Look at it closely, with clear eyes. At every turn in this story of this baby there is threat and fear and powers circling, attempting to strike at the light.
We might forget, we might wrap up Christmas in good cheer, but Christian tradition doesn’t. It’s striking that the next day–the very next day–after Christmas, the Church remembers not glad tidings, angels, and shepherd boys, but a bloody death by stoning. St. Stephen it is, the first Christian martyr.
St. Stephen is followed by St. John on December 27th, who may not have met a violent death, but who, the tradition tells us, died in a prison of sorts, in exile for his faith, far away from the “civilized” powers that had sent him there.
December 28th brings us back to babies, but with no relief–it is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the children Herod ordered slaughtered, according to Matthew’s gospel, in his rabid fear of the rival king.
The message is clear and hard: Following this baby, as he reaches to us from the resin manger, looking out at us with the soft-eyed cattle and docile sheep, comes at a price.
There is an edge to Christmas, a harshness, and a different kind of promise than that implied by the easy words of peace and glad tidings. It is a mystery, all of it. The Word made flesh indeed, but into a world that was from the beginning set against it, that sought with every bit of strength at hand to stay in the darkness.
So it was that our baby’s baptism was on that day, December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The heart skips a beat now. Not so fitting, perhaps, as we contemplate the lovely soft living baby being washed, but in the shadow of sorrow.
My baby’s baptism in Ohio was, according to earthly judgment, a disaster. The weather was miserable, icy, and cold. No one’s cameras would work. The bishop decided we might as well immerse the baby fully, which was okay with us, but turned out to be not okay with the baby, who commenced screaming his lungs out at the unexpected bath, and not okay either with the bishop’s elderly mother, who was quite horrified. And circling around us the whole time was our three-year-old, who seemed to have absorbed the demons driven out of his brother during the exorcism part of the rite, and who would not, in the face of many and varied threats, be still. He raced like–yes–a demon, in and around the church, constantly, through the whole affair. I’ve helped out at many baptisms in my work in parish ministry but this one was, I think, the worst.
But perhaps it was more fitting than it first appears. Trivial problems, yes, but still an apt metaphor for the Christian life begun there, and yet to come for Baby Michael: not the warmth of a tidy, neat manger scene, with everyone gathered in comfort, calm, and peace, but something startling and new, a shock to the system, entered upon in a world of frustration and discord, circled by forces intent to disrupt.
Glad tidings of comfort and joy, and Merry Christmas indeed. But without awareness of the risk of discipleship, and the reality that the baby in the manger ends up hanging on a cross, those words have about as little power to change the world as “Happy Holidays.”