Advent is drawing to a close, and so sadly too is Hallmark Christmas Movie Season. The plots of Hallmark Christmas movies are about the same: small town girl moves to the big city, finds success and a hedge fund boyfriend, but for whatever reason (grandpa’s hardware store might close, mom’s Christmas cookie business needs a hand, etc.), the now big-city girl must go home for the holidays. There she meets a blandly good looking guy in flannel, finds out the hedge fund guy doesn’t love Christmas as much as he should and so needs to be dumped immediately, she falls in love with flannel, and Christmas magic strikes again. If you’re not looking for the movie to make any sense, or for any minority characters, or for the female lead to have any moral direction at all, then you too can fall for the magic of a Hallmark Christmas.
The lead-up to the first Christmas was less Hallmark-esque. We see first a visit to Mary by what must certainly have been a terrifying being named Gabriel; then a scandalous pregnancy; Mary taking off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house for three months; Joseph deciding to at least not have her killed; God persuading Joseph to take all of this on his shoulders; and eventually the birth of the baby Jesus in a cave amongst the denizens of the barnyard.
One of the great things about the story of the birth of the Christ Child is that it is obviously true. No one in their right mind would make up that story. It’s too dirty. The whole things feels like everyone was under some sort of duress. And I guess they were.
And it’s almost like, hhmmm, God wanted it that way. All people, at some time or another, have felt some sort of duress, and let’s face it, most people around the world just plain live under duress. If Christmas brings peace, goodwill toward men, it’s because we’re in need of some peace and goodwill.
We read from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning – what we read is the beginning of the letter, the greeting. The letter is addressed to “all God’s beloved in Rome”, to whom Paul is sending “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, state-sponsored persecution began in AD 64 under Nero, but life was not great for Christians in the year 58, when Paul’s letter was delivered. “Rome was the center of the Empire (of course) and was ethnically diverse. In the first century AD it had a population of around one million people in an area less than ten square miles. Of this large population, it is estimated that there was between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews in the city,” most of whom would have had to have come back after the Jews were expelled from the city by Claudius in AD 49.
Paul, then, was writing to a Christian population that was under duress for being Christian, being Jewish, or being both. He wrote mostly to explain the doctrine of salvation, but first, first, he offered them what they really needed: grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What Paul offered them was the true magic of Christmas. As much as I love Hallmark Christmas movies, what Paul offered them wasn’t glossy or sparkly or a little to easy, but something more, something literally more down to earth yet all the more heavenly. What he offered was the grace, the peace, the goodwill that comes only from the knowledge that God not only wills those things for us, but personally brings to us His peace, His grace, and His goodwill.
And so when you find yourself under duress, remember that the history of salvation isn’t a magical feel-good story, but was rather completed by a Man who was born under strange circumstances, raised in a humble home, and died in the midst of scandal, all so that no one would ever be out of reach of His grace and peace.