My favorite Christmas song — sentimentally, at least — is called “The Happiest Christmas“. It’s a rather obscure little number by British chanteuse Petula Clark — she of “Downtown” fame — and was featured as part of those delightful Goodyear holiday albums so popular in the 1960s and 70s.
Recently, one of my brothers made the comment, almost apologetically it seemed, that the piece made him feel “melancholy” — as though that reaction was somehow inappropriate. I didn’t differ with his assessment: “The Happiest Christmas” positively aches with melancholy; that’s one reason I love it.
Melancholy during Christmastide? What’s the problem? Obviously, joyful sentiments grab most of the headlines during the contemporary Christmas period: “Joy to the World”, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”, and such. But there’s another, subtler element at work here; one often neglected or outright ignored amidst all the festivities.
There is, point of fact, something fundamentally and ineluctably melancholy in the event commemorated worldwide every December: God became a human baby so that a lost mankind could be restored to a relationship with Him — but only at incomprehensible cost.
One of the definitions Dictionary.com supplies for “melancholy” is: “sober thoughtfulness; pensiveness”. I’d say that reaction to the holiday’s meaning is more than suitable. There’s, indeed, something mysterious, other-worldly, about a holy infant Who was destined from the start to mature into an adult Who would pay the penalty for the sins of others. That haunting, heartbreaking note pervades the entire season, as it should — even as we also celebrate “glad tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Like so much of the rest of life and history on this fallen planet, there’s more than one aspect to Christmastime; a decidedly mixed bag.
Turns out, the implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ are not all warm-n-fuzzies; certainly not for Him, at least. One English version of the sixteenth-century Finnish Christmas carol “Personant Hodie” (“Resound Today”) declares: “His the doom, ours the mirth;/ when he came down to earth.” For the newborn Savior, arrival on terra-firma didn’t promise only unalloyed “good news”. Some grim times awaited Him; pain like none other had experienced.
A couple of preachers I know like to say any major, biblical truth ought to find itself at least hinted at in Genesis, the opening book of Scripture — which, I think, makes a lot of sense. I’d riff on this perspective a tad to suggest any central aspect of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ ought to find expression — if only in seed form — in the introductory period of His life; His nativity.
Don’t miss the significance of the first visitors to that Bethlehem manger: Shepherds who’d been tending their flocks in the region, and whom an angelic company had dispatched to greet the baby Jesus. It’s likely at least some of the lambs under the care of that band would wind up in nearby Jerusalem, to be offered as sacrifices for the sins of penitent Jews. These peasant laborers arrived to honor not only a King, but One Who’d one day Himself be identified as “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). In the celestial glow of this child’s birth, there emerges a whisper of his propitiatory death thirty-three years in the future.
Shortly thereafter, a caravan of enigmatic “Wise Men” (“Magi”) honored the Child Jesus with gifts fit for royalty (Matthew 2:11). Gold confirmed His regal status. Frankincense spoke to Jesus’s priestly mission of serving as mediator between a Holy God and unworthy humans. Then there was myrrh — a cherished embalming substance which darkly presaged how He’d accomplish that mediatorship: The Innocent One would be executed in place of the guilty ones.
The seasonal staple “We Three Kings” piquantly sketches this sense:
“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume/breathes a life of gathering gloom;/sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
It’s startling that this foreshadowing resin shows up not only in the early stages of the Savior’s life … but in its conclusion as well. At His crucifixion Jesus is offered — and refuses — “wine mingled with myrrh” (Mark 15: 23). Following his crucifixion, we’re informed myrrh played a part in His burial preparations (John 19:39).
A Christianity.com article concisely connects the dots: “The item comes full circle. Magi present this gift to him at birth, he receives a taste of it right before he dies, and they embalm him in it.”
It shouldn’t be overlooked that myrrh is produced by cutting the bark of a particular thorny tree species. The plant is struck — just as the Son of God would be. And thorns! Not only is this an allusion to the sadistic “crown” which impaled his brow, but it’s a call back to that moment when the first man fell into sin, bringing a curse on all of creation (“thorns and thistles” — Genesis 3: 17-19); i.e., the incident which made necessary a Savior’s terrible sacrifice in the first place.
Yes, the Messiah was born to die.
And His advent led to the tragic death of others.
Frantic to cut off this individual he wrongly perceived a challenger to his throne, a power-warped King Herod annihilated all male children two years old and under in the precincts of Bethlehem. His atrocity was the fulfillment of a prediction the prophet Jeremiah expressed some six-hundred years previously (Jeremiah 31:15). These are not lines normally associated with Christmas — but it was, indeed, the birth of Jesus Christ that set in motion that which brought them to pass (Matthew 2: 17-18):
“In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
On the heels of the miraculous and glorious debut of the Divine-Human Jesus what do we find? The sordid condition of humankind put on savage display by this tyrant. The observant reader is reminded God, literally, sent His Son to remedy an otherwise hopeless predicament and rescue wicked men and women.
Mary plainly intuited there was more to the delivery of her Child than simple, happy motherhood. When those shepherds brought their angel story to her, she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) Forty days later, when she and husband Joseph toted their Son to the Temple for the requisite dedication, they were greeted by prayerful Simeon who’d been avidly awaiting the Messiah. He pronounced the little one God’s “salvation … A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2: 30, 32).
Then, addressing the mother: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2: 34, 35 NKJV)
So, visible rejoicing … accompanied by ominous warnings. Challenges and conflict lie ahead not just for the infant, but for mom as well. I’m minded of the gutting scene in Mel Gibson’s masterpiece The Passion of the Christ in which, helplessly watching her grown Son stumble and crash to the pavement as He carries the cross, Mary flashes on a memory of His tumbling to the ground as a small boy — and her hastily running to cradle and comfort Him.
For His mother and His future followers, Christ’s humble Bethlehem entrance, His remarkable ministry which followed, and that brutal Cross on which He died meant hope, forgiveness, healing, eternal life. By all means, then, joyfulness is in order. Yet, also portended from the outset were suffering, loss, conflict, resistance — every one inevitable when Heaven’s peerless plan collided with the foul realities of a fallen creation.
Again, it’s like life itself. As Rick Warren has insightfully clarified, God’s will is not that an individual experiences an ongoing spiritual rollercoaster of transcendent highs and crushing depths. No, life in this age is supposed to be like a train track moving ever upward in Him, one rail standing for felt blessings, the other for the struggles that ineluctably come with existing in a sin-damaged setting.
God became a human person because of the problems crippling, bedeviling every other person (John 3:16). He became the “light of the world” (John 8:12) because people, otherwise, would have only the darkness. (Isaiah 9:2)
The Christmas story naturally elicits bright eyes and smiles. We’d do well to let it occasionally prompt a furrowed brow.
Of course, the holiday represents joy! But it’s everlastingly serious business, as well. Notwithstanding another popular Christmas tune, we should have ourselves a “merry” one; but never regard it as “little”.
Truly, it’s possible — even important — to enjoy “the happiest Christmas” … while never losing sight of a loving Father’s grief that man’s selfishness, greed, lust, anger, duplicity, faithlessness, and general corruption made necessary the whole thing in the first place.