The Danger of a Familiar Christmas

Going to use several guests to prepare us for Christmas this year.  Advent is often skipped in the mad dash of “preparation.”  Heed the warning of J.B. Phillips:

“According to an old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. Of course this is not always true! In particular, it is often not true of people with whom we are familiar. Indeed, with the best kind of friends, the more we know them the more we grow to love and respect them. It is only the people who are superficial and at heart unreal who let us down when we grow familiar with them. It is then that our previous admiration can turn to contempt.

But the old saying was not intended to apply only to human relationships. There are situations where human beings are at first filled with awe, and then as they grow more and more familiar with them they experience first indifference, and then contempt. The “spiderman” who works on scaffolding hundreds of feet above the ground, has to be on his guard against this over-familiarity. The man who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of becoming contemptuous of his danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, “By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.” Whenever familiarity breeds contempt there is potential danger.

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference. The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance. For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man. Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble. In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman?and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries. Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture. At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. And as far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. He was betrayed and judicially murdered, deserted at the end by all his friends. By normal human standards this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.

It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.

–         J. B. Phillips  (From “The Dangers of Advent” in Watch For the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas, pp. 20-24.)

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