THE COMMON RULE
A MEDITATION ON WHY WE NEED SOMETHING THAT IS HARD TO BELIEVE
THE CHRISTMAS IMAGINATION
Read on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or whenever you find yourself wondering why it is that we do all this stuff.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
- Isaiah 9:2
The “rough shall be made smooth.” Can you imagine that? Perhaps not. Because the hallmark of dwelling in darkness is the lack of imagination.
Like the theory of the cavefish, having no use for eyes its eyes eventually begin to disappear. The heart is not so different. After so many hopes are dashed, you begin to forget that hope is possible. For lack of exercising the muscle, it begins to disappear.
But this is the point of Christmas. To reset the imagination and shine a light into the eyes that were disappearing.
Christmas comes blustering in like a cheerleader interrupting a funeral. What is there to celebrate in this land of the shadow of death? This land of war, sexual assault, racial tension and destabilization. Not only is the Christmas interruption odd, it almost feels inappropriate.
But all the Christmas stories share this same feature – an interruption of the ordinary with a proclamation of the extraordinary. Mary is behaving herself perfectly when an angel interrupts with news of a pregnancy out of wedlock. Shepherds are stuck in the boring chill of midnight when fires light up the sky. Simeon is waiting around the temple like he does every day (for a promise you have to wonder if he himself even believes any more) when in comes a child and his heart completely melts. He can die in peace now.
So it is for us, that the Christmas bells interrupt our funeral dirge. Think about it:
Here you are, in the ordinary stuck-ness of your own life. At best, you feel like you’re waiting for something to change, but to say it aloud feels naive. At worst, you feel resigned to the stuck-ness, you genuinely cannot imagine things getting better – and that is the true death. That is the real depression - the inability to imagine alternate futures and possibilities.
This is not a metaphorical frustration. This is actual pain.
Some of you are watching your parents die. Some of you are living with dying children. Some of you are dying inside from the cancer of your long-held secrets. Some of you skim over a paragraph like this, because you are denying that you are dying at all – which is itself a kind of death.
It is in all of these places of regular life that we feel the darkness of the imagination. How could we live without this addiction? How could we ever really fall in love again with our spouse? Will our kids ever get out of this stage? Our jobs ever easier? The cancer is here, and as far as we can tell, people don’t just “get healed,” so it is hard to pray with any sincerity.
We cease to imagine life could be different either because we genuinely can’t anymore or because it’s embarrassing to try.
This is the land of darkness. This is where Christmas pops like a match.
The sound is startling, and the flame dances awkwardly, threatening to die before settling into a small, steady burn.
Then the stories begin to cast their light. These unbelievable stories of angelic messages and travelling stars. Stories of babies surviving in barns and sojourning kings – not to mention a virgin birth.
The Christmas stories are absolutely fantastical. To the point that the initial conversation is only about how hard they are to believe.
Here we are now, closer to the point. This stuff is absolutely unbelievable.
And to be clear, I’m not trying to convince you these miracles are believable. I really do believe them. But why you should is an argument for someone else’s essay. I’m arguing that they are important precisely because they are so hard to believe.
Christmas asks us to use our imagination and believe in things we cannot see, cannot apprehend, cannot explain, and most certainly cannot contain.
This is the view of the world we were meant for because this is the world as it actually is – full of sparkle and mystery. It is not reality that lacks wonder, it is our imagination.
I suspect that we want our kids to believe in Santa because we remember what it was like to believe that there was something more to the world than meets the eye. We want them to believe in something fantastic because we long to re-live something fantastic. This is why we love our fantasy stories, we long to get caught up in some mind-blowing reality that soars above our own.
This is precisely why mediating on the Christmas story is revolutionary. Because its claims are fantastic. If virgins can conceive and choirs of angels can illuminate skies, then maybe something can change in our life after all.
Now we are heating up. Now the match has kindled a blaze.
Christmas actually asks us to believe the unbelievable. For example:
To believe that God doesn’t just exist – He is actually near. To believe that the world is not just more than it seems, but that it is being made new. To believe that the virgin not only gave birth, but the child would do signs and wonders, that He would be executed and rise from the dead. Christmas promises that worlds will be remade and nations will bow before a common King.
These, and nothing less, are the fantastical claims of the Christmas story that make virgin births seem routine and Santa stories seem like cheap parlor tricks.
We are talking about a story more epic than any human has ever conceived. We can’t imagine it, much less script it into a pilot series.
To get caught up in the Christmas story is a holy act of the imagination. It is a way of imitating Simeon – we can genuinely spend our whole lives waiting for something fantastical, and we would be "righteous and devout" to do so. We would be doing exactly what the Gospel prompts us to do. Believing that the world is far more than we can see, and that God is bringing something far greater than we could have hoped.
The Christmas imagination is to be engaged. To be harnessed. To be inflated like a big, red, shiny balloon until it pulls our hearts and minds up to places of hope we never before dared go.
The problem, then, with our usual celebrations of Christmas may not be that they are too much, but that they are too little. They are not nearly fantastical enough.
Let us suppose that it is all true. That here in the stuck-ness of our own life Christmas barges in and says that a baby has been born who is going to change everything. That, yes, it really is true that your life is a mundane progression of sadness – but now it really is true that your life is going to be remade in complete newness because Emmanuel is here. God is with us.
All that you and I have longed to behold is here in Christmas to behold because in Christmas glory dwelt among us.
This is why we should spend Advent dwelling on how the whole world is basically an exercise in waiting. This is why we should prepare for Christmas by rhythmically meditating on the fantastical claims of this story. This is why we should have habits of unusual prayers guiding our minds through the day, so that our thoughts don’t simply loop on the usual stuck-ness of things, but are drawn up into the fairy tale that is actually true: The Prince of Peace has come to kiss His bride.
This is why we should prepare enormous parties, because in the face of such news, what would we drink? What would we eat? Who would we hug? How to commemorate the day? Lavishly, I think. Prayerfully, I bet. Wildly, I suppose. Gladly, I am sure.
May we let Christmas be as fantastical as it is. We need it that way, because that’s the way the Kingdom of God actually is. We are the ones who are stuck in the dimness of dulled imaginations about where the world is and where it’s going. But it is Christmas that lights up the night with news of Jesus in a body come to rescue us.
We could use the interruption. We could use a dark night lit up by halleluiah choruses of angels.
Let Christmas morning come, then, like an unexpected messenger. Like a forgotten soldier coming home, standing unexpectedly on his mother’s front stoop. Listen to what he’s saying: “I’m alive. The war is over. Peace is dawning.”
It’s time to melt the guns into spoons to feed the hungry. It’s time to wake up - the night is far gone and the day is at hand. It’s time to rush downstairs to hear the news, see the packages, deck the halls, and cook a big family breakfast.
It’s time to celebrate. Emmanuel has come. Imagine that.