“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” –Luke 2:1-7 (ESV)
December seems somewhat unsuitable for the appearance of the promised hope of Christmas – the message of the birth of Jesus. Why then is this month of long, cold nights proper for celebrating the “Dayspring from on high”?
The audacious claim of Christmas is that, to redeem us, God Himself came in the most vulnerable human form. Multiple prophecies foretold His birth in Bethlehem of a virgin mother, of the line of David. Each prophecy is more than a prediction; it is a promise. He is the Messiah, the Promised One, Emmanuel, who fulfills the promise of reconciliation with God.
At Christmas 2006, we are still warring with an asymmetric enemy pledged to our ultimate destruction, and many argue that these are among the most difficult days our nation has faced. Yet Decembers past have seen American Patriots keep promises during many dark and trying times.
Surely, for our troops arrayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those of us supporting them on the home front, our straits are not as severe as those pressing General George Washington during the early years of the Revolutionary War. As his Continental Army troops left bloody footprints along the path to Valley Forge, the good General fell to his knees for prayer in the snow, beseeching God’s guidance as to how he might persevere to victory.
Victory did come in the Christmas Campaign successes of 1776 at Trenton and Princeton, about which Washington presciently wrote, “If every nerve is not straind to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition I think the game is pretty near up…. No Man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have – However under a full perswation of the justice of our Cause I cannot but think the prospect will brighten.”
A year later, however, came the aforementioned retreat to Valley Forge. Even with Christmas approaching, Washington’s discouragement was evident in his writing of “A character to lose – an estate to forfeit – the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake – and a life devoted, must be my excuse,” and about how “it was much easier to draw up remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire-side, than to occupy a cold bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.”
However, on 17 December, Washington issued general orders: “Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in its present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and Brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.”
Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn’s diary entry of 18 December read, “This is Thanksgiving Day. God knows we have very little to keep it with, this being the third day we have been without flour or bread, and are living on a high, uncultivated hill, in huts and tents, lying on the cold ground. Upon the whole I think all we have to be thankful for is that we are alive and not in the grave with many of our friends.”
As Surgeon Albigence Waldo observed of that encampment, “Mankind is never truly thankful for the benefits of life, until they have experienced the want of them.”
We began as a nation of great promise and great promises – the sheer force of which compelled our Founding Fathers to persevere. Clearly, these mortal men believed human liberty to be the Gift of the Creator and they captured this belief in our nation’s seminal document: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Our Founders had promises to keep – as do we. In the coming year, then, may we look to the Christ Child, and may we embrace the promise He so faithfully fulfilled.
The claim that Emmanuel fulfilled the promised reconciliation with God challenges the rising conceit and doubt in our culture, that nothing can be known to a certainty. That is why this holiday of light, marked by the shining of the miraculous Christmas Star, is best honored at the deepest darkness during the year. The brightest promises are those made at the bleakest times.
During this Christmas season, and every day of the coming year, may God’s peace and blessings be upon you and all those around you. Merry Christmas!