“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. . . . The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.”
If children know only happiness at Christmas, then we as adults can know an even greater happiness. We know, like children cannot yet know, the lack and lust of our own hearts, the countless sins of commission and omission. Our ledger is full of black marks and growing. And so, when we consider what God has done in His condescension, in his Incarnation, Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” is not an option: we know our failings, we know what we deserve, and so we know that what we receive as gift is pure grace.
I am thankful that I had a good scaring as a child. In my childhood church, I recall watching prophecy films about the end of the world, the projector wheels turning, dramatic and sobering. On the way home in the dark once, I lay down in the floorboard at my mother’s feet, sheltered from what was sure judgment. Then, as a preteen science fiction reader, I was steeped in the fantastical and yet not so unreal as to be unbelievable stories of Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, so much so that I dreamed of terrors and, for a time, had to move into my parents’ room just so I could sleep. After that, Hal Lindsey’s pre-millenialist End Times manual, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a logical next step, a kind of Bible-based science fiction. The Antichrist. Armageddon. One world government. Nuclear war. It was all coming true, in my lifetime. I just knew it.
While I no longer agree with Lindsey's interpretation of Scripture, I credit him (and perhaps Asimov and Heinlein as well) with scaring me into the Kingdom. I wanted to be among those raptured. I was frightened of being left behind. In the shadow of the Cold War, I lay awake at night sometimes wondering when the bombs would fall as part of the judgment. (I had a big imagination.) I felt, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse.”
So, I am put off at times by the sentimentality and sweetness of Christmas. That helpless baby lying in a manger is also the one who will come with fire and judgment. On that terrible day, left on our own, none of us could complain. Justice will be done. The Christ in the manger points to the Christ on the cross, the One resurrected, the one who comes on that Great Advent to make all things right. We best approach the helpless babe first on our knees, trembling, as He is our Judge. He is the one who will separate the sheep from the goats, the one who will "make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). We must absorb the bad news before we are quite ready for the good news. You hear little of this “proper scaring” during Advent.
At some point in my teenage years, I understood more fully that the God who judged my sin also covered it, that the baby Jesus was more than judge. He stood between my sin and God. He was not only judge but savior. I could walk through the hallways of my high school not weighed down by failings but free. All the Falls of my life were overthrown by Springs. The ledger may continue to fill with what I owe and yet "Jesus paid it all," in the words of the old hymn.
Rightly understood, this first Advent is a harbinger of a terrifying Day. But for believers, like children, we have all the more reason to be happy. We need not fear judgment. We are the recipients of a present of grace that has no bottom. Bonhoeffer says that
God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. . . . We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home has moved into us.
In a final letter, written on her deathbed, author Flannery O’Connor admonished the recipient to “be properly scared, and [to] go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions.” Christian, I hope at some point in life you have had a proper scaring. If not, consider anew the Great Advent. Look to a baby in a manger who will bear all our sins away, as far as the East is from the West.
Happy Christmas, all. For the love of God, Happy Christmas.