It's easy to be cynical about the hype surrounding Christmas, not just because it starts earlier each year and seems focused on everything, but the birth of Jesus, but also because Christmas itself seemingly doesn't deliver on its promise.
What is the promise of Christmas? What Christmas is meant to bring is laid out in the biblical texts given us in our Advent liturgies. Mostly these are prophetic visions of what things will look like after God sends a messiah.
Taken mainly from the Jewish prophets, particularly from Isaiah, these visions promise that the birth of the messiah will turn reality delightfully upside down. What Christmas promises is universal peace, the lion and lamb lying down together; reconciliation, enemies forgiving each other; justice, valleys filled in and deep places raised up; food for all, every sheep carefully tended to; restfulness from our longing, everyone cradled peacefully in loving arms; and healing from all wounds, God himself drying every tear on earth.
The Christmas crib is an icon of that peace. The hymn Silent Night captures its spirit. But our world, as we know, is far, far from this peace. There are few silent nights, at least if we are to believe the evening news. There is a threat of war and terrorism everywhere, sincere people are killing each other in the name of God, the gap between rich and poor is widening daily, and tens of millions are sick and dying of hunger and AIDS in a world rich in food and medicines.
Everywhere there are people who are hungry, oppressed, living in fear, and daily there are more people murdered and raped than our newspapers and newscasts have space and time to report. Christmas still seems more of a promise than a reality.
Granted, this is not the whole story or perhaps even the real story. There's perspective that the evening news doesn't tell: The vast majority of people on this planet are sincere and are trying to deal with all of this as best they can. As well, the vast majority of people on this planet rises each day and turns their faces to God and prays. There's still more belief than non-belief, sincerity than insincerity, sanity than insanity, and goodness than malice on this planet. Not all is war and violence.
So what is the real state of things? Can we sing Silent Night and have it mean something? Has Christmas delivered on its promise? Singing Joy to the World with the same wonder felt by the first shepherds, after just having been told of Jesus' birth by the angels, is precisely what our faith asks of us. The Christmas promise has come true, though we need to recognize how: The prophet Isaiah tells us when the birth of the messiah is announced to King Ahaz, God says: "A virgin will give birth to a son whom she shall call him Immanuel" – a name meaning God-is-with-us. To understand this is to celebrate Christmas without trivializing either the truth of God's promise or pain and evil in the world.
Christmas is precisely the challenge to celebrate while we are still in pain. Jesus' birth means that God-is-with-us. That fact alone doesn't mean immediate consummate joy or even automatic justice. Our world still looks much the same. In Christmas, God doesn't send a super-hero to rid the earth of evil by destroying all that's bad. God sends a helpless baby, lying in the straw, needing to be nursed, nurtured. That's God's wisdom, the power of a baby. Babies don't shoot bad guys. They change hearts by offering a gentler presence.
So Christmas doesn't rid the world of evil. For the Christian, just as for everyone else, there will still be senseless hurt, broken dreams, cold, lonely seasons when love is far away. Christmas doesn't promise heaven on earth. Rather it promises us, here on earth, something else: God's presence in our lives.
And it's that presence, not the power of a superhero to blow away all that's bad, that redeems us. When we sense that God-is-with-us we can give up selfishness, bitterness and jealousy because we are no longer alone in them. Everything can be born if it can be shared. We no longer walk alone in our pain. When we are not alone then pain and happiness are not mutually exclusive and the agonies and hurts of life do not exclude deep meaning and deep joy.
Avery Dulles once put it this way: "The incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity."