The Christmas story is both well known and hardly known at the same time. Our familiarity with the story makes us see only what we expect to see. The more we are used to seeing something, the less we really see it. Familiarity reveals our own expectations more than anything else. It puts blinders on us that keep out the unexpected and the unknown. Familiarity makes us comfortable. We can relax in the familiar, even soak ourselves into a dreamy bliss in the comfort of expected familiarity. Christmas memories and family traditions are among our most familiar treasures.
What the familiar doesn’t do is keep us on our toes. It doesn’t keep us sharp, alert, awake or prepared to encounter the unexpected, the unknown. It makes us lazy and content with our laziness. Once we know a thing or think we know a thing, we stop trying to know it better. Once we know it, we catalog it and file it away. We assume that we already know all we need to know about it. Familiarity strangles curiosity and wonder. Familiarity blocks out black swans, to use a term coined by N.N. Taleb to describe not merely what is unexpected, but that class of the unexpected that strikes with the force to completely change everything. The black swan represents what is so completely unknown and unexpected as to be unthinkable.
Christ is the ultimate Black Swan, who has made the single greatest difference the world has ever known—and can ever know. Though Christ had been prophesied for thousands of years in the Old Testament, His actual arrival came as a complete surprise. Those who most expected it—the ancient Jews—didn’t see it. They still don’t. Christ, who is a thousand standard deviations from the norm, simply doesn’t register on their instruments.
It is not that Christ came in a lowly manger in an obscure corner of Palestine, and now we can be done with Him. No! Christ came and we can never be done with Him. Christ’s coming will never be over. He brought eternity to our miserable little world. He turned on a light that cannot be turned off. No one can escape His light. We have grown familiar with His story, and by becoming familiar with it, we have relaxed and soaked ourselves into a dreamy bliss of children’s fables and donkey stables, of mystic choirs on moonlit hills.
And we’ve convinced ourselves that the dreamy bliss of our Christmas expectations, of hearth and home, of family and friends, of mulled wine and eggnog provide the essential reason for the season. “Krismus is about family,” we say, hoping to avoid the blood and pain of the birth of Love, and His unrelenting demands. We mumble God’s name in the hope that He won’t notice us, that He won’t call on us to answer His question. We turn away from Him, averting our eyes, hoping not to catch His, lest He call us to some response. We call it krismus, fudging the name of God in the hope that He won’t hear us, that He won’t look our way, that He won’t think that we are talking to Him. We don’t want Him to see us, to see our brokenness, to see the state of our hearts and souls—or our broken families. So, we mumble—Merry krismus, Happy holidays, Season’s greetings—hoping not to invoke the Lord of life or the holiness of the holiday.
Is the krismus season really about Kris? We’ve plastered over Christ’s story with fairytales about Kris Kringle and St. Nick—pagan stories, false stories, imaginary stories that trip the light fantastic in the shimmering raiment of tinsel and children’s dress-up dramas, of desert Arabs and angels in the night, of kitsch and kin, and the snow white lies of blather and prattle, and dancer and blixen, of jabber and palaver, and personal fiction. Our krismus portraits are too often painted in the syrupy light of Thomas Kinkade, familiar scenes of an idyllic time, of bygone days. The problem with krismus memories is that the past never actually was the way we think it used to be.
It never was about Kris or Nick, or stockings on the fireplace. It never was about Rudolph or Santa, neither Scrooge nor Grinch, nor sugar plum fairies. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s His story and His mass. Understanding Christ’s mass will take some explanation because the mass of Christ comes like the black swan that He is—predicted, yet completely outside of the field of expectation. Christ is never what we expect because He comes from outside of the known universe.
There are at least two kinds of unknowns. The expected unknown, the kind we speculate about and if we’re smart, we plan for. Expected unknowns are rare possibilities, and the critical question is when they will happen. The more dangerous unknown is the unknowable unknown that blindsides us every time because it cannot be expected. We never see it coming. The unknowable unknown is unimaginable. We can’t see it at all until it’s upon us. And even when we see it, it doesn’t register. The unknowable unknown has no precedents or categories of explanation. It cannot be categorized and filed away. An unknowable unknown is perfectly unique, like nothing else. We can’t refer to it by saying that it’s like something else because it isn’t. It’s not like anything else that ever was or ever will be again. I’m talking about the mass of Christ—His coming, His presence, His reality. He is everything we hope for, yet nothing like we expect.
What is this mass of Christ? It’s not what we think it is. It’s not candles or robes, not smells or bells. From physics, mass is the property of a body that causes it to have weight in a gravitational field. A body without mass is not real—not on this earth. All bodies have mass. And so we celebrate the coming of Christ’s mass into this world—bodily.
A mass is also an ill-structured collection of similar things, as in “a mass of refugees fled across the border.” The mass of Christ is also a collection, an assemblage of similar people. Christ’s mass is His body in this world. It’s an ill-structured collection of peculiar people who gather and scatter in His name. Some are more scattered than gathered, though the call to gather provides an annual event that is hard to miss. Some hear it semi-annually and also accumulate in the Spring, but that’s another story, an Easter story.
Mass in the plural also refers to the common people, to ordinary people, to the masses. So, from this we understand Christ’s masses to be common, ordinary people. The masses belong to Christ because Christ is God and everything belongs to God. This doesn’t mean that the masses are all going to be saved—not all of them, but a mass of them. It also means that we will all appear before the bench in judgment, a massive judgment. God’s judgment by Christ is our common destiny. Christ will judge the masses.
There’s more. Mass is also a property of something that is great in magnitude, as in “he received a mass of correspondence.” Here we see that Christ’s mass is great in magnitude. Christ’s mass is a big deal, a really big deal. It is massive. His throng is massive. Mass can also be used as a verb to suggest the joining together into a mass. A mass can be collected or formed by bringing various things or people together, as in “crowds were massing in the church.” Such a joining together is integral to Christ’s mass. Christ’s people mass together every Lord’s Day.
Mass can also be used as an adjective to suggest that things can be formed out of separate units and gathered into a whole or unity. Here we see that Christ’s mass describes the unity of the whole. Indeed, when the whole is large, the unity is massive. We pray for a massive unity in Christ.
Finally, some churches refer to the celebration of the Eucharist as a mass. It’s not just a Roman Catholic thing, but has roots in the Upper Room. Today, this kind of mass usually has a musical setting and a sequence of prayers and culminates in the Lord’s Supper. So, Christ’s mass is also a feeding of the body. Not just cookies and cakes and pies, not just fudge and brittle and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but bread and wine, body and blood. Christ’s mass is nourishment for body and soul.
Perhaps we can begin to recapture the reason for the season by not fudging on its name. It’s not krismus. It’s Christ-mass. It sounds odd to ears unaccustomed to truth. It may take a little getting used to.
How did it start? Luke, a physician, wrote to clarify what was known about the beginning of Christ’s mass, of how it was that He had come to us, of His family and the great expectation of His arrival that had both fueled hope and blinded the masses. Luke’s story does not begin with Jesus, but with Zechariah, a righteous and faithful priest who served the Temple during the reign of Herod, King of Judea. Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was childless, and they were both old enough to think that fertility had simply passed them by.
One day Zechariah drew the lot to serve at the Temple. His job was to burn incense for a prayer service. While he was doing that alone in the Temple, as the people were outside praying, an angel came to him. Apparently, this hadn’t happened to him before, and it frightened him. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:13-17).
The angel had given Zechariah a job—to raise his son to be an evangelist who would prepare people to receive Christ. Apparently, people couldn’t just come to Christ, nor would Christ just come into the world. Preparation was necessary. Part of the preparation involved a generational transfer of faithfulness. Zechariah was not to prepare a people to receive the Lord. Rather, Zechariah was to raise a son who would prepare a people to receive the Lord. Zechariah’s preparation of John was essential to John’s preparation of a people.
John would be no ordinary child, but would be filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in his mother’s womb. John was born again before he was born, before he was circumcised. Was John the Baptist ever baptized? There’s no record of such a thing. John’s story scrambles our theories about baptism, of how and when baptism works. We are familiar with our theories. They give us comfort, and often blind us to the truth.
John, in the tradition of Sampson before him, would be a Nazarite. His life was to be dedicated to the Lord. It’s not that he gave himself to the Lord, though he probably did. Rather, it is that his parents gave him to the Lord before he was born. Zechariah was to raise John as a Nazarite, so that he would put God above everything else and seek personal sanctification and purity of life. John grew up to be a desert recluse, a wild man for God, living in the desert, apart from the masses, eating bugs and honey. But that comes later.
Zechariah doubted the veracity of the angel’s prediction. Like Abraham before him, he doubted that he and his wife would ever conceive. His wife was “well stricken with age,” and he was likely more stricken than her. We’re too old for children, he lamented, but secretly prayed for a son. The angel was there to answer his prayer, not to comfort his lament.
He should have known better. He should have seen the similarity between his own story and the story of Abraham and Sarah laughing at a similar prediction that produced Isaac (Genesis 17:17, 18:12). Zechariah, though a righteous priest, blameless in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord, was apparently ignorant of the power and ways of God, perhaps too familiar with Scripture to see its reality. He should have known the story of Isaac, should have seen it coming. But he didn’t. Zechariah had been blinded by the comfort and familiarity of his own expectations. The Lord would come sometime, whatever that means—but not this time. Not now, not here—not me!
There he was, a faithful priest of the Most High God, working his temple shift, tending the fires of expectant hope—yet blind to the movement of God when it actually came upon him. In the face of the greatest story on earth, a story that would reverberate forever in the history of the world, Zechariah doubted the angel. He doubted the truthfulness of God’s promise. He doubted, not merely his wife’s ability to conceive, but he doubted God’s readiness to make it happen. His expectations were infertile.
The angel was flabbergasted at his response. He was not accustomed to such insolence. “I am Gabriel,” he said. “I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news,” (Luke 1:19)! Gabriel knew that God didn’t need a ninny like Zechariah spreading his doubt and faithless attitude to others as Zechariah told people about Gabriel’s visitation. So, he shut his mouth. “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20).
The prayer service ended and people were waiting for Zechariah to come out—perhaps to shake his hand, or ask for his blessing, or to confide in his counsel. But he was delayed. When he finally came out to meet and greet the crowd, he was speechless. No doubt he had that Moses-esque, just-come-down-from-the-mountain glow about him. He probably looked like he’d seen a ghost—singed eyebrows, hair a tussle. It was when he couldn’t talk and began waiving and pointing and grunting that people realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. Zechariah would not speak again until John was born.
His Temple shift finally ended and he went home. Imagine him explaining to Elizabeth about his day. She comforted him and conceived a child.
Six months later Gabriel went to Nazareth to visit Mary, a young virgin betrothed to Joseph. He greeted her and shared the gospel of God. God had given his grace to her, favored her—not only saved her, but saved her in a very special way. At this point, the angel hadn’t said anything else. This was her moment of salvation, her initial realization of salvation. And what was her response? She was terrified! She didn’t know what it meant, and wasn’t sure if she wanted anything to do with it. Luke was so circumspect in his description of her response. He said that she “tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). What a great way to say it!
Gabriel called her by name and repeated himself about the grace of God’s salvation, and followed up with the announcement of Christ’s birth—through her. Jesus would be the Lord of the universe, and she’d be the mom. Mary’s response was just like Zechariah’s—she doubted it. She didn’t believe Gabriel. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34), she complained. I can imagine her thinking: That’s not the way things work down here, Gabe. Did you say you were looking for a volunteer? I’m going to need a couple of days to think about it.”
I can also imagine Gabriel’s response—oui vey! Not more of the doubting and pouting! He could clearly see that Mary would need a change of heart if she was going to get with the program. So, he brought in the big guns. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” he said.
Overshadow is a curious term. The word occurs five times in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke used it to describe Jesus’ transfiguration on the mount. Luke used it here and again in Acts 5:15 in reference to people being healed by Peter’s shadow. Remember the story, as Peter’s shadow fell on people, they were healed. Overshadow simply means to be in the shadow of something or under something. It may have been a colloquialism of some kind that means to be in proximity or under the influence of something.
Mary would come around once she was overshadowed, once she came under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This overshadowing involved an envelopment in a haze of brilliancy—odd that a shadow would be described as brilliant. It was Matthew who described the transfiguration cloud as bright (Matthew 17:5). Transfiguration means to invest with “preternatural influence” (existing outside of or not in accordance with nature—supernatural). Whatever it was, at that point Mary, who had already fallen under It’s influence, was thoroughly discombobulated.
Mary was quite young, and not yet married. She would need some help with the pregnancy. So, Gabriel told her about Elizabeth, her cousin. She could confide in Elizabeth because Elizabeth would understand. Something similar had happened to Elizabeth. No, Elizabeth had not had an angelic visitation. Nor had she conceived immaculately. But she had been on the receiving end of a bona fide miracle. She knew about Gabriel, and was already six months pregnant. Mary and Elizabeth could help one another in many ways.
So, Mary agreed. Whether she understood it all is doubtful. We still don’t understand it all. God is not looking for our understanding, at least not initially. Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Here is the preeminent model of simple faithfulness. Mary was willing. And Mary’s willingness is the epitome of how salvation works. Mary was saved by the idea of Christ. God calls, then sends in His Holy Spirit, who changes our hearts and makes us willing—and we willingly obey as best we can, trusting in God’s mercy. The process is somewhat disconcerting—disturbing. It doesn’t happen like we think it should. First, it’s not about us—it’s about Christ, and second, we are not in control.
The more a person has railed against God, the more disconcerting conversion is. To become what you have spent a lifetime hating and belittling or ignoring is unsettling. Fortunately, Mary hadn’t spent a lifetime hating God, but neither had she known Him. She had no idea of who God really is, though she was probably raised in the faith.
When John was born Elizabeth confirmed the name that Gabriel had given him. It was not a family name, and surprised everyone. The elders wanted to confirm it with Zechariah, who still couldn’t speak. Only after he agreed with the name choice, did his voice come back, then “he spoke, blessing God” (Luke 1:64). When Zechariah began speaking after nine months of silence, he began by blessing God—and the preparation that Gabriel had prophesied began in earnest. No doubt, Zechariah explained the whole thing to anyone who would listen, and “fear came on all their neighbors” (Luke 1:65). He not only spoke, but he began to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And John grew strong in the Spirit and spent a lot of time in the desert with God. How could John prepare a people when he spent all of his time out in the desert? John found sanctification in the desert. Apart from the distractions of city life, John could hear the voice of the Lord. The desert prepared John as it had prepared Israel long ago. The desert prepared John, who would prepare a people to receive Christ, who would prepare the world for the judgment of God.
And all of that was a long time ago. Today, we remember the anticipation of Christ’s birth. Today we remember Christ to hasten His return.