A Christmas story

-with apologies to everyone expecting poignant family moments, angelic birth announcements, or Red Ryder rifles and leg lamps


The back side

Those hateful games, which made the spectacle of human suffering and death the delight of all classes, had spread their brutalising influence wherever the Roman name was known, had rendered millions absolutely indifferent to the sight of human suffering, had produced in many, in the very centre of an advanced civilisation, a relish and a passion for torture, a rapture and an exultation in watching the spasms of extreme agony. . .The most horrible recorded instances of torture were usually inflicted, either by the populace, or in their presence, in the arena. We read of Christians bound in chains of red-hot iron, while the stench of their half-consumed flesh rose in a suffocating cloud to heaven; of others who were torn to the very bone by shells or hooks of iron; of holy virgins given over to the lust of the gladiator or to the mercies of the pander; of two hundred and twenty-seven converts sent on one occasion to the mines, each with the sinews of one leg severed by a red-hot iron, and with any eye scooped from its socket; of fires so slow that the victims writhed for hours in their agonies; of bodies torn limb from limb or sprinkled with burning lead; of mingled salt and vinegar poured over the flesh that was bleeding from the rack; of tortures prolonged and varied through entire days. (1)

And a Merry Christmas to you.

So what does this record of the barbarous persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire have to do with Christmas? You’re certainly not going to find it as the text of any Christmas card, with an article of torture all covered with sparkly snow on the front. Peace. . .love. . .good news of great joy. These are the traditional sentiments of Christmas, and rightly so. But they convey just one side of the Christmas story. . .the attractive one. The back side is very ugly. . .hatred, violence, cruelty, selfishness, abuse, the incredibly inhuman treatment humans are capable of inflicting on one another. This is the reason why Christmas happened.

The reason for Jesus

Jesus is the reason for the season, we are sometimes reminded. But the reason for Jesus? It’s man’s inhumanity to man. It’s the propensity in all of us to seek our own pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction even at the expense of others. Not many of us will incline to the extreme of physically torturing another human being, but would we have been among those in the arena?

To whatever degree our inclination diverges from the plumb line of perfect goodness, we are under the just condemnation of a holy and righteous God. Some of us are more plumb than others, to be sure, but all of us are bent and doomed to an eternal separation from God because of it.

Enter God the Son. . .Jesus the Christ. . .born to die so that we might live. Since we in our base, sin-prone humanity are hopelessly incompatible with a holy God, he in his exalted, infinitely-loving divinity did the impossible and made compatibility a possibility. By becoming human himself as the perfect God-Man, he bore the condemnation we deserve. Merry Christmas to us.

The transforming power

But as if that wasn’t enough, when we believe and submit to him in faith he seals the deal by giving us his Spirit, which increases the compatibility quotient exponentially, transforming us into unique creatures that are similarly at once human and partakers of divinity. And as such could never do any of the horrible things recalled above.

That cruel, violent, morally-decaying world was what Jesus was born into, despite the bucolic serenity of the traditional manger scene. And no matter how comparatively peaceful and sweet our little corner of it may look, 2,000 years later the world is still indescribably unworthy of his attention, love, and very presence.

Only when we truly grasp that the reason for the season is Jesus, and the reason for Jesus is us, and our helpless situation because of sin, can we fully appreciate the epoch-changing event we celebrate at Christmas. And only then can we really experience the great joy kindled by the good news the angels proclaimed to the shepherds on that holy night. Because the news is only good when seen in the light of the bad.

(1) William Edward Hartpole Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1 [1869], as quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church – From the 1st to the 20th Century, Kindle edition