A Brief Pre-Christmas Observation: Solving the Age Old Question

Having just watched the film “Die Hard” for the third time in less than a week, I can affirm it is, indeed, a Christmas movie, perhaps even more so than many of the assumed classics. And why? Well, not only because it takes place at Christmas, or because countless scenes are adorned with Christmas décor, or the traditional greetings passed between characters, or because, if you are listening, you’ll notice that the entire soundtrack orchestration is quite literally constructed from snippets of favorite Christmas songs, all of which are established on the framework of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (which has become a Christmas favorite for many). It’s not just a Christmas movie for these reasons, but because it speaks of the divine gift of Christ’s birth as being at the heart of the season, and it does this through a character whose very name symbolizes the purpose of the Lord’s birth.

At the 14 minute and 20 second mark, right after an embarrassing interaction between a pompous co-worker, Ellis, and her husband, John McClane, Holly speaks the following line:

“You’ll have to forgive Ellis. He gets very depressed this time of year. He thought he was God’s greatest gift, you know.”

The time of year is Christmas, and for as wonderful as Ellis might think he is, Holly reminds us that Jesus remains God’s greatest gift. And, again, her name. Holly trees have long been used by Christians at Christmas. The evergreen nature of the tree’s leaves symbolizes eternal life won by the newborn Christ child. And how was this eternal life accomplished? The tree’s prickly leaves remind of the crown of thorns, and the deep red berries symbolize the blood shed, both of these taking aim at the reason for the Son of God’s birth: that He might die on the cross for the Sins of the world.

It is settled. “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie.

Summer is Coming

In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.

Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.

Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.

It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.

To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.

Only the real summer sun will do.

The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.

Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.

I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.

I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.

The Masterpiece of Family

If I were asked to choose God’s greatest masterpiece from among the many things He has fashioned, of course I’d select His plan of salvation worked through His Son, Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of a straying creation is His greatest work. The resplendence of the Christmas season more than certifies this magnum opus. But if I had to choose a second place from among the rest of His handiwork, before I’d ever even consider the majesty of a mountain range, or the cascading and jewel-like glistening of a sunlit waterfall, or even a pitch black sky filled with an endless array of iridescent stars, I would choose the family.

The human family is truly a remarkable thing.

Besides being the fundamental building block of all societies in history, I suppose one aspect of family that’s so remarkable is that just to observe one is to see a number of important truths in our world. For one, Christians know the source code for family is born from the relationship God intends for us to have with Him. He is our Creator—our divine parent—and we are his children; and as His little ones, we are free to go to Him to receive the benefits of His loving kindness and concern, and He is sure to exercise that care as He watches over us. When we’re sick or hurting, He brings the right medicine and healing. When we’re sad, He’s there to give comfort. When we’re scared, He provides security. Perhaps best of all, when we’re lost, He seeks us out. In fact, such a scene epitomizes the Lord’s very first words to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the fall into the dreadfulness of Sin. He didn’t reprimand the misbehaving dolts, but rather His first action was one of love. Like a concerned parent, God called to his children, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In an existential way, a human family portrays an orderly world and its functioning parts. From our planet and everything within its protective atmosphere all revolving around a preserving sun, to a body moving and breathing and living by way of individual cells creating tissue that become parts ultimately forming a whole, the human family is iconic of purposeful togetherness. At least Saint Paul certainly thought so, especially when considering the universal Christian family—the Church—as a functioning body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

I suppose one of the most remarkable aspects of the masterpiece of family—an aspect that almost certainly makes all other created things jealous as they look on—is the element of unconditional love to be had between its members. God certainly intends this love to be a part of a family’s DNA, and this is a good thing because no human family is perfect.

Thomas Fuller spoke wisely when he said something about how anyone born into a family that doesn’t have the usual screw-ups and headache-makers must have been born from a flash of lightning and not in the natural way. In other words, and again, no family is perfect. As a matter of fact, every member of every human family is carrying around faults plaited in the human flesh. Sure, some members of our families cause more problems than others—and some of these problems are the worst kinds—but in the end, none of us are free from the complications we ourselves impose on others around us, no matter how big or small those complications may be. Because of this, it’s an absolute miracle that human beings can live in such close proximity to one another for very long, let alone in the same home as something called family. Being a family is not only remarkable, but it is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors, too.

And yet, by the love God models and then sets as the standard—a love He establishes both in and between the members of a family—we can maneuver among one another with our individual distinctions knowing that we also “carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, no matter how horribly dysfunctional things might seem to be, it’s the love of God among its members that makes it work and sees them through the seemingly unsurvivable times.

With this Gospel sense about us—even if we’re the only ones sitting at the Christmas dinner table who believe it—as I heard someone once say (and I don’t remember who), for Christians, a family becomes something in which we might sometimes feel trapped, and yet in our innermost, we don’t ever really want to escape. We know there’s too much to lose by doing so, and so we look around at one another and we not only see people we love, but we behold people whom God loves—people He was willing to die for. That means when even our closest family members betray, hurt, or disappoint us, they remain someone we’d fight hell and high water to keep safely within reach.

This comes to mind as I think of all of you this Christmastide.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about many of the people of God here at Our Savior, it’s that each and every day, by God’s grace, they are growing closer and closer to one another as a Christian family. I’m seeing it with my own eyes, and I’m experiencing it personally, too. As a congregation, we heard some tough news yesterday before both of the worship services regarding the health of one of our own, Pastor Zwonitzer. And yet the oxygen-like joy we have in Christ was not sucked from the room when he shared the concerning details. Instead, we took it in together, and then we exhaled together in prayer—and then we breathed in the Lord’s promised care as a Christian family during the worship service that followed the announcement. I can barely begin to top this hopeful imagery of our mutual togetherness, except to say that this kind of togetherness is happening in so many other corners of our congregation. Differences are being overcome. Care is being shown. Needs are being met. People are rallying to one another’s sides in times of both desperation and joy.

As the world around us is so easily rattled, as it appears to be coming undone by frustration and despair, I actually can’t think of a time as a pastor of a congregation when my own personal peace has felt so impenetrable. Truly, God is blessing our togetherness with love, strength, and determination that only He can provide, and it’s bringing along in its train a sense of safety—the kind of safety one experiences when he knows he’s surrounded by loved-ones.

Christmas is only a few days away, and with it will come gatherings with folks you might call family. My prayer is that you can carry this Godly perspective from your church family into your own home. To be thoroughly equipped for this, I’d encourage you first and foremost to gather for worship with your Christian family on Christmas Eve and Day. Join your brothers and sisters in Christ at the Heavenly Father’s divine table for the celebration of the coming of His Son, our Brother, who came to take away our Sin. From there, be refreshed to venture into the midst of your earthly families humbly understanding none of us is perfect—none were born from a flash of lightning—but on the other hand, we were reborn by water and the Word for faith, and so we aren’t as we were before. We are equipped for exemplifying the unconditional love God intends to be found in the midst of families, and in due course, extended to others beyond the borders of our family.

I know such love won’t always be easy, but I know for a fact that it’s possible by God’s grace at work through us.

Again, know that I’m praying specifically for peace in your families this Christmas, and I’m trusting that God will grant to you the special merriment of heart that knows no matter what happens, this peace has already been won by Jesus, the very brushstrokes carrying the splendid hues of God’s greatest masterpiece—the Gospel.