A natural pearl occurs when a piece of grit works its way into an oyster, after which the oyster, to defend itself from the irritant, secretes layer upon layer of coating fluid on the piece of grit until a pearl is formed.
Christmas, as a global celebration, is a lot like that pearl. Layers and layers of the shiny and smooth have been built up to protect the world from the irritant at its heart. Twinkling lights, cheerful colors, elves, ugly sweaters, bows, gifts, tinsel, snow, Bing Crosby, reindeer, candy canes, silver bells - the world's oyster has been adding layers to this pearl for about 2000 years now. And it's as lovely as you would expect a pearl to be.
And Christians who object to all of this stuff can have a point and miss the point at the same time.
Yes, the world finds the incarnation to be an unbearable irritant and protects itself from the grit of Jesus' birth by layers of shiny pearl. But it does not, in doing so, defeat the grit. The grit is not neutralized but enshrined. Every pearl is a temple devoted to the power of a particle. And if the pearl appears to succeed in obscuring the grit, it also succeeds in keeping it securely right at the heart of things.
And what is the grit that is intractably at the heart of Christmas?
Jesus was born as an act of war. His incarnation was a dramatic escalation in the heavenly fight for our redemption and he was born, unequivocally, that he might die. His birth itself was violent in the way that all births are; it featured blood and raised voices. And, though it was a crudely ineffective gesture, Herod's slaughter of the Innocents is very much a part of the nativity.
In both relative and historic terms, Jesus was born into an underprivileged household. The account of the nativity highlights the lack; lack of housing, lack of furniture, lack of resources, lack of privilege. Time and sentimental depiction would render that poverty less offensive, but think about it very hard and you will see it for grit. Jesus' parents had to worry about things like food and clothing. And their example prevents us from using our own bank accounts as a reason for why we can not be obedient to God until our circumstances improve.
The manner of the incarnation is a rebuke to the elite, to the connected and entitled. Jesus' parents were pedigreed, but they were powerless. The birth did not happen in Rome at the height of its power, nor Imperial London or cosmopolitan New York. Jerusalem, it turns out, was a fine place for Jesus to die, but for his birth a backwater village was called for. And the only elites who play any part in the nativity are wise men who show up so late that they have nothing to contribute to the event but worship, gifts, and the threat of a danger that came from their penchant for palaces.
This is the gritty thing at the heart of Christmas that will always be the biggest source of painful irritation to the world. Jesus birth was not a divine excursion, or the heavenly equivalent of a semester abroad. Jesus left the courts of heaven and endured nine months of gestation, an ignominious birth in squalor, the peril of adolescence without modern medicine, and all the worst this world has to offer so that he could, as an adult, die for the sins of those who killed him. And it wasn't because of sin in the abstract that he came, but for sins as specific as the straw on which he lay in the manger. It was for my particular sins and your particular sins. And what amount of built up pearl could ever make pleasant as irritating a piece of grit as that?
No, this grit at the heart of Christmas is made beautiful by the pearl built up around it, but no amount of pearl could ever make it safe.
And so I'm happy to wish you a merry Christmas, a Christmas with all the lustrous pearl the season has to offer. But I'd also wish you an irritating Christmas, one where the grit at that heart of the season makes its way into your own heart.
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