Summary: In the middle of winter, we need Christmas, but in our spiritual winter, we need Jesus and all he brings to us.
Always Winter, Never Christmas
Charlie Brown says that Christmas is at the top of a long hill, and I think that’s a pretty good description of how Christmas seems when you are young. I know it was that way with me. December 25 was the most highly-anticipated day of the year as far as I was concerned: bigger than my birthday, bigger than the Fourth of July, bigger than the last day of school. And it always seemed like it would never come.
For adults the perception has been reversed: Christmas is at the bottom of a long hill, and we are in a runaway sled racing faster and faster toward it. That may be what people mean when they say, “Christmas is for children.” They remember the anticipation and would like to have back that long period of waiting in exchange for the rush they feel today.
Yet somehow we need Christmas. Right now I don’t mean the birth of Jesus. That’s really what we need, of course, but we’ll save that for a minute. Right now I want to talk about the holiday known as Christmas, a holiday celebrated by Christians, people of other religions, and people of no religion at all. We trim trees, we have parties, we exchange presents. It all goes on in and around and sometimes in place of our celebration of the birth of Jesus, and it seems very importance. We could say “commercialism,” but it’s more than that. There seems to be a deep psychological need in us for a celebration in the middle of winter. Winter would seem almost unbearable if it simply began in mid-November and didn’t let go until April, leaving us with nothing to look forward to for four or five months but filing our Income Taxes. When the days are darkest, literally, we take time to turn toward the light. Even those who don’t believe seem to take hope from the celebration of Christmas. The winter will not last forever.
C.S. Lewis’s book "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" begins with a little girl named Lucy getting into the land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe in an old country house in England. The land of Narnia is a magical land where the animals talk and amazing things happen. But it is also enchanted, Lucy finds, in a much more serious way: in Narnia, it is always winter, but never Christmas. Narnia, you see, is in the grip of the White Queen, a witch who has cast a spell on the land. Only Aslan, the great lion who is the true king of Narnia, can defeat the White Queen and break the spell. But Aslan has not been seen in Narnia for many years; indeed, no one now living in Narnia can remember seeing Aslan. And so they live in hope, hope that the old prophecy will come true:
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have
spring again. ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," p.64)
If this sounds familiar, it’s meant to be. Lewis is writing a children’s story, a fairy tale if you like, that mirrors the story of our world and calls us to see it again in a new way. In the world we live in, it often seems that it is always winter, never Christmas.
The Bible often expresses this longing, never more powerfully, I think, than in the words of Isaiah:
"Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down? The mountains would see you and shake with fear. They would tremble like water boiling over a hot fire. Come and reveal your power to your enemies, and make the nations tremble at your presence!" (Isaiah 64:1-2, TEV)
I think what the prophet had in mind was God’s appearance to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, at the first giving of the Law. The Israelites, led by Moses, had left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea on dry land, watched the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, and had come at last to the mountain of God. There, the book of Exodus tells us,
"Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder." (Exodus 19:18b-19)
That’s what we want, isn’t it? No more still, small voice, no more little, easy-to-miss signs of God’s presence, but smoke and fire and earthquake and the voice of God echoing like thunder. It is what Jesus promises in our reading today from Mark: