By commercial, I don’t just mean the buying of gifts. The bringing of expensive gifts was, after all, a part of the original story, though not necessarily in the spirit of Wal-Mart and Amazon. The commercial sense I have in mind is the Christmas ambience of peace and joy--of sipping hot chocolate next to the fire, of happy family dinners and restless kids opening presents. This is the Christmas that sells, and for good reason. I love this kind of Christmas spirit as much as anybody, but the person who takes this to be the tone and tenor of the whole story is in for a shock when she reads the account of the first Christmas in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is peace and joy, no doubt, but there are also mothers weeping over slaughtered children and a prophecy that the Christ child is the one “appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And despite all the tranquil images of Mary and child in a star-lit manger, she is told that, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:25-32)
This is to the commercial Christmas ambience what warm rain is to a snowman. The slaughter of the innocents, the depiction of baby Jesus as as stumbling block, and the thought of Mary’s soul being pierced with a sword, leaves us feeling as if packages have been stolen from our porch. But all these fit hand-in-glove with the whole story of Jesus through the New Testament. Later on in the story, the adult Jesus talks about a sword again when he warns us against facile assumptions about the kind of peace he brings: “Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Matthew 10:34-36) So much for happy family dinners!
And these aren’t the only references to piercing swords in relation to Jesus. In the beginning of the gospel of John, he is identified as The word of God, and we’re told in Hebrews that, “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight; everything is uncovered and exposed before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Some of us spend much of our lives wrestling with the bizarre mixture of beauty and evil in the world, standing at an analytical distance as we try to figure out whether to praise God for the beauty of the manger or blame him for the bitterness of the weeping mothers. For others, this line of questioning is never considered as it is drowned out in the noisy pursuit of presents.
Christmas should silence the noise of our speculations and our busyness as the sound of a King’s blade leaving its sheath silences a chattering servant. Christmas is the swinging of the Sword that will pierce us all, “so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” It is the beginning of the reckoning point at which everything--EVERYTHING--will be “uncovered and exposed” by the one who “judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”