Thursday, December 19, 2019

"The First Night" and Christmas' Pain

Nativity picture books are a wonderful way to tell the story of Jesus’ Advent and birth. But as I read through these beautifully illustrated stories, there is something missing. It is a key component of Advent. And if we aren’t careful, leaving it at the door will rob us of a very important message about Christmas.

In his article, Christmas Doesn’t Ignore Your Pain, David Mathis writes,
The real Christmas does not ignore our pain. When we open the pages of Scripture and turn to that first Christmas, we find, without doubt, that all was not merry and bright. The new glimpses of merriness that do emerge fall against the backdrop of misery and disorder. Those first rays of brightness shone in a land of deep darkness. . .

More significant than Joseph’s or Mary’s pain is the pain and sin and suffering and ruin for which Jesus came. The angel declared to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

. . . If God’s people, not to mention the nations, weren’t needy — desperately so — there would have been no Christmas. Christ did not come to put on a show or make a cameo in history. He came to bring life to the dead, to rescue the perishing, to heal the sick, to destroy the works of the devil. For centuries, misery and darkness had been compounding. Only in coming to such a depraved and disfigured world would his arrival signal hope for any real merriment and brightness.
I don’t know about you, but misery and darkness aren’t themes I see in many picture books. It’s often too deep a subject for young readers’ blossoming minds and hearts. Yet, as I wrote about last Blue Christmas (December 21), we need the darkness to more fully see the light. A story is the most powerful when the protagonist has to overcome a great obstacle or challenge. So why are all these nativity stories so docile and quiet?

Today’s picture book is a perfect example of this. B.G. Hennessy’s The First Night, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher is almost pure Nativity fact. No extraneous details or additional animals are there to help tell the story. It’s simple and beautiful. But after reading Mathis’ article, it struck me how much it was devoid of pain.

But I don’t really think it is. The author opens the book with John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."

Maybe it’s that grace and truth tend to shine brighter than the pain. The pain of Mary, of Joseph, of a waiting nation, of an over-crowded Bethlehem, of a baby who would grow up and suffer and die for us, the ones desperately in need of God’s presence among us. He lived a painful and difficult life, yet flowing through His veins was a sustaining joy that could not be quenched, even by death.

Mathis continues,
The great joy the angels announced at that first Christmas can sustain us as well. Christmas doesn’t ignore our many pains; neither does it bid us wallow in them. Christmas takes them seriously, more seriously than any secular celebration can, and reminds us that our God has seen our pain and heard our cries for help and he himself has come to deliver us.
 The last few pages of The First Night read,
There was a mother, a father, and a baby.
The baby lay on a bed made of hay.

The baby was seeing this world for the first time.
He saw the swaying lantern, the donkey, and the woolly lamb.

He felt the night air,
his soft blanket,
his mother’s arms,
his father’s hands.

And in that warm, dark stable
His life began.
The scene looks so serene. But it was not devoid of darkness. That is where God intended for Jesus' life to begin. With this humble beginning in a dreary and broken world, He grew up to become our Light of Life.

We cannot forget that Christmas includes our pain. Without it, there would be no reason for Jesus to come at all.

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