Christmas Is Not under Control

by Mike McKinniss

If the world always ran in accordance with my wishes (sigh!), there would eternally remain two to three unblemished days on the calendar every week. Naturally, the work day would be busy with productive toil, but at least a pair of evenings would ideally remain sparkling and unsoiled by plans. I’m forever hoarding a bit of space for myself, you see.

It wasn’t long ago—just before Thanksgiving, if I remember correctly—I took a peek at my December calendar, and I rather reflexively expectorated a mild but genuine curse. The whole flippin’ month is jammed full of events. Somehow without my notice, I lost control of my time this holiday season. I don’t like feeling out of control.

The holiday season is often filled with remembrances of various figures from the first Christmas. A handful of beautifully carved characters have taken up temporary residence atop my fireplace mantle for the next month. There’s the infant Christ nestled in his makeshift crib. The virgin mother ponders the affair quietly, while Joseph, a little dumbfounded, nevertheless stands dutifully over the scene. Three kingly figures carry with them tokens of reverence, and there’s a timid shepherd boy lingering to the side. And let’s not forget the cow, all white and red, or the sheep with the curly horn. They’re all there, and each tells a story.

One figure not depicted in this crèche, though vitally integral to the Christmas story, is King Herod. Perhaps we’d like to forget him for the vile role he plays, but we should not erase him, lest we similarly expunge a valuable lesson.

You recall the tale: the Magi from the east come to Herod on the occasion of a newly risen star. The omen tells of a newborn king, they say. Herod lies in response, “Let me know when you’ve found him; I’ll pay my respects too.”

But Herod is no political dummy; he smells a threat to his own power and legacy. He believes that this infant king is a rival to his own—or at least his son’s—throne. Better nip this thing in the bud, he thinks, cut it off right at the source. He’s out for murder, yes, but that’s merely a symptom of his underlying sickness. Look deeper: Herod seeks control.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men (Mt 2:16, NET).

It is worth noting, as always, God’s response to Herod’s insanity. The Lord takes action, of course, but in a way that would make for a good resolution, after the Christmas holiday is concluded. God neither coerces the holy family, nor does he supernaturally manipulate their circumstances. Rather, God simply speaks.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him (Mt 2:13, NET).

Many mornings over breakfast, my wife provides a commentary on the content of her myriad dreams and the actual real emotions they had produced in her during the night. She might, after a lengthy recitation, inquire of me: “What did you dream about?” Let’s just say that had Joseph been more like me than like my lovely wife, the poor baby Jesus would have needed another method for escaping Herod’s maniacal schemes.

This is vital information the Lord is relaying to Joseph, and he chooses to do so in what might appear the least controllable manner possible—through a fuzzy, semi-conscious medium that may or may not have been dramatically affected by a bad side of hummus Joseph ate for dinner.

But this, I think, is partly the point. Our God, so thoroughly good that he is the very definition of love, refuses to control by force. Far from a string-puller or button-pusher, the Lord merely speaks. In a dream. And he’s hoping we’ll hear and respond, even in the crazy busyness of the Christmas season.