Can Christmas be "frightening" or "terrifying?' Maybe . . . probably . . . yes . . .
Following is Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's column on Advent and Christmas:
As we enter the last few days of Advent before we rightly give our hearts over to the joy of Christmas, we might take a few minutes to consider two brief passages from the past about the deeper meaning of the season.
Here's the first. The great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that
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. We are indifferent to the [Advent] message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to 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. God comes into the very midst of evil and 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. God wants to always be with us – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us.
Bonhoeffer knew both the joy and the cost of his Christian faith, and he lived his discipleship heroically in very difficult times. But he was not alone in his heroism, nor in preaching the real meaning of Advent from the depths of Germany in the Second World War. Here's a second passage for our December prayers:
We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security. And now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters; not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one thing – the spirit's innermost moving and being moved…
The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth. The Advent message comes out of an encounter of man with the absolute, the final, the gospel. It is thus the message that shakes – so that in the end, the world shall be shaken.
The Jesuit priest Alfred Delp wrote those words from a prison cell shortly before the Third Reich executed him – just as it did Dietrich Bonhoeffer – for resistance to the Hitler regime.
These are uneasy thoughts for a “holiday season” once deeply religious and now largely an excuse for non-stop shopping. And yet, they're the soil from which real Christian joy and hope must grow. They remind us why Advent, as a season, is so vital to understanding the whole of Christian revelation. The baby born in Bethlehem comes to bring us light and peace, and celebrating that great truth really does make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.
But to win our redemption, the infant Jesus will grow into a Man who will die for us and then rise again. Jesus Christ comes to deliver us from the evil in ourselves and in the world that slew Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alfred Delp; a world that continues to burden the weak, the poor and the innocent with suffering and violence.
As Alfred Delp wrote, Jesus comes to shake everything – not just the vanity of the rich and powerful, nor the hatred in the hearts of terrorists, but the indifference and callousness in our own very ordinary lives. Advent is reminder that Jesus comes not just as a baby in a Bethlehem manger, but as a judge of all men and women at the end of time. It’s a season not only to look forward in joy, but also inward in repentance and reform.
Jesus Christ comes to shake everything. We need to remember that as we quiet our hearts for Christmas. May he come quickly.