Christmas Tidings in The Darkness

By Mark Marshall

One of the strengths of traditional Anglican worship is the room it makes for subdued and difficult circumstances and states of mind (unlike some “praise and worship”). There is room for regret every time we confess our sins. There is room to hurt for ourselves or for others during the Litany, the Prayer for all Conditions of Men, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church, and the Prayers of the People. Even the Calendar has room for the darkness we all experience, even during the Christmas season.

Perhaps I should say especially during the Christmas season. The day after Christmas, we remember the first Christian martyrdom, that of St. Stephen, and our minds to the martyrs of today and terrorist attacks on churches. Then three days after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those babies Herod murdered in order to murder the newborn King as remembered in the old Christmas carol Unto Us Is Born a Son:

This did Herod sore affray, And grievously bewilder, 

So he gave the word to slay, And slew the little childer.

Yes, dark indeed. Surely these are accidents of the church Calendar. Those days must have snuck into the Christmas season for some obscure liturgical reason only the very scholarly or the very Anglo-Catholic could understand. Surely those are not really Christmas feast days. Or are they?

American culture has long told us we should be happy, happy, HAPPY!! at Christmas. Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” and all that. But Christmas has a dark side. And we cannot come near to comprehending Christmas if we ignore that darkness.

We might consider it an awful thing if we spend Christmas in a place we do not want to be, whether that be away from family -- or with certain family. But Joseph and Mary spent that first Christmas in a place they would not be, far away from home because of the decree of a distant emperor. Then once at their destination, they were crowded out, to which many can also relate.

Christmas brings back memories of lost loved ones for most of us. The Feasts of St. Stephen and Holy Innocents remind us that we should allow room for such deeply felt loss at Christmas instead of trying to shunt it aside and ignore it. Yes, especially the Christmas season Calendar gives room for difficult situations and emotions, for ourselves and for those around us.

Another seemingly dark side of Christmas, which I came to notice for the first time well after I became Anglican, is the celebration of Adam’s Fall (Feast of Adam and Eve, December 24). Now the Fall doesn’t seem something to celebrate at Christmas or at any time; isn’t it the source of all the difficulties we now go through? But if there is no Fall, there is likely no Incarnation, no Christmas. For to save us from the Fall is why Jesus came. So traditional festivities include reading the Genesis account of the Fall during services of Nine Lessons and Carols and perhaps even songs calling us to “Remember Adam’s Fall.” The Fall is virtually embraced.

Other traditional Christmas songs remind us of the death Jesus would eventually suffer to deliver us from the sin of our first parents. The Seven Joys of Mary contain this jarring verse:

The next good joy that Mary had,

It was the joy of six

To see her own son Jesus,

Upon the Crucifix.

That does not sound like good Christmas joy. But if you separate the Incarnation from the Crucifixion, there’s no understanding of Christmas or Christianity itself.

And both the Incarnation of Bethlehem and the Redemption of Calvary were so world-changing, the forces of evil did their worst to short-circuit God’s plan, to snuff out the Christ Child before his work was complete. In that evil, the Holy Innocents were slaughtered. And then the forces of evil tried and still do try to silence the glorious good news of the salvation that Child brings to us. 

Yes, remembering Adam’s Fall, the Crucifixion, and the martyrdoms of St. Stephen and of the Innocents may not seem very Christmasy. But what passes for Christmas in our culture is hardly Christmas. To franticly ignore the dark side of Christmas in strenuous efforts to be happy is to miss out on what Christmas is about. To understand and fully appreciate the tidings of great joy we must understand they were, and are, proclaimed in the darkness. A darkness which was pierced by the light of the newborn Christ.

May you have a blessed Christmas.

Mark Marshall is a Lay Reader in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

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