At one point in our history, my sisters and I were making it a yearly habit to exchange Christmas ornaments with one another. For several years the four of us would create or find distinctive adornments for the tree that we would then mail across town, across the state, or in my case, across the country, as a way of amplifying Christmas cheer. This tradition ended about a half dozen years ago.
This December as we were putting up the tree, I discovered that one of the ornaments my sister had sent me had a door on top that opened. I had never noticed that before. So there I was carefully placing each ornament on the tree each year, but never realizing that this particular one had a latch which allowed the top to fold back, revealing a hidden chamber. Inside was a portrait of our parents. As I looked at the two familiar faces smiling at me, I pondered the fact that this special addition to my sister’s gift had been inside this entire time. There was more to the ornament than I had known or seen. Only now was I discovering it.
In a similar way the rich story of the Advent we hear and repeat at this season of the year has aspects and nuances that may at first be hidden from sight. There is much more to Christmas than a baby who was born in a barnyard, then placed in a feeding trough, and angels and shepherds showing up to welcome the new arrival. The advent of Mary’s son into the world involves more than a confused virgin who makes the choice to be the mother of the Son of God. You know about the challenges faced by Joseph, the anxious husband who discovers his bride is pregnant and is sure his betrothed has cheated on him; he is only dissuaded from his plan to divorce her when he has a dream in which an angel assures him all this is part of God’s plan. These are vital and memorable and beautiful and moving aspects of the narrative, but there is more.
If I were preaching one sermon on the birth of Jesus, I would take as my premise the fact that the birth of Immanuel foreshadows his sacrificial death. From the moment he left the glorious surroundings of heaven and emerged into this world as an infant to begin life on earth, Jesus was walking a sure and determined path to an excruciating death on a cross atop an infamous hill outside Jerusalem.
The Bible sums up the connection this way: “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying” (Hebrews 2:14,15, NLT).
Jesus’ death set us, all of us, free from the fear of dying. And that redemptive death was only possible because of his humanness, his flesh-and-blood-ness. Because Immanuel (that name means, “God with Us”) was born and lived and died, we can live without fear. For anyone who has known the tragic and destructive nature of fear, that is indeed good news.
In a powerful scene near the end of the movie “Gladiator,” Maximus, bound in chains in the bowels of the Coliseum, says to Commodus, “I think you’ve been afraid all your life.” He makes this statement after Commodus asks the slave, “Do you think I am afraid [to fight you]?” and immediately before Commodus stabs Maximus in order to gain his advantage in an upcoming battle in the arena. “Afraid all your life”? That is indeed a disempowering way to live.
Scripture says we’ve been freed from fear, but it’s not automatic. Fear-less living doesn’t come without the intentional release of personal control and a concurrent surrender to the gift of life God has given to us. But it is ours to enjoy.
We’re free. Let’s make it our goal to live like it.