At this time of the year I always have a struggle, a fight against numbness. The hustle and bustle of the Season leaves me striving to grasp something authentic and meaningful. I have a hard time staying afloat the flood of packaged cheeriness, muzak in jingles or bells, ephemeral Santa’s and reindeer. With the word “Hallelujah” almost becoming a laughable cliché, an ordinary expression for scenarios from finally finding the right gift for the family pet to paying up the Visa bill, soon it would take a history lesson to clarify the origin of this festival called Christmas.
Intentionally or not, the Reason of the Season has been masked so not to offend, the birth of Christ replaced by themes acceptable to most cultures, like gift-giving, family reunion, ornaments, decorations, and good will towards all. ‘Season’s Greetings’ has become the politically correct sign of the time.
On that winter night in Bethlehem, the shepherds bore no gifts. Indeed, their very presence and worship could well be the gift they offered. Yes, the several wise men brought along gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ child only, not to share among all. For these gifts symbolized the very reason for His Advent, the infinite King debased, the lowly birth was just the beginning of a short and misconstrued life that ultimately ended in a horrific death.
The Advent, the few weeks before Christmas, is the best time for me to ponder again such a paradox. If there is any joy or cheeriness, it comes from the initial degradation and ultimate agony of One. It is from that vicarious suffering with humanity and the offering of substitutional death that Christmas derives its meaning for me.
A few weeks ago during a Sunday message, the name Joni Eareckson re-emerged in my mind. I was a young teenager when I first read her tragic story. At 17, she dove into shallow water and broke her neck, and remained a quadriplegic ever since. I cannot imagine myself paralyzed from the neck down, having had to be lifted from bed to wheelchair for 37 years.
But what she has done sitting in that wheelchair has surpassed many able bodies. Her international ministry to people with disabilities is still thriving after 30 years. The paintings which she has labored over inch by inch with a paintbrush between her teeth have become a testimony of perseverance, every stroke an ode to life. Through her writing and broadcasting, Joni has become a voice and inspiration for the disabled and their families, all because she knows her suffering had been vicariously borne by the One who came just to share that pain, and redefine the meaning of life.
The hymn (Phillip Bliss, 1875) that had uplifted Joni in her most despondent hours painted not a cheery figure but a suffering Christ who came with no jingles or bells, and utterly devoid of packaging: “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came…”
If you have a few minutes in this busy Christmas season, pause and take a look at this short clip. Of all interviewers, I found Joni talking to Larry King, dated June, 2009.