One of my favorite Christmas stories happened a long time before Christmas (maybe 2000 years). It is the story of Jacob, wrestling with the Angel of God.
Jacob was a man of conflict. He was stubborn and ruthless, a liar, cheat, and con man. The name “Jacob” means “deceiver” or “thief”. Yet God had promised Jacob to him that Jacob would the head of “a company nations”. Still, it seemed unlikely.
Jacob had an estranged twin brother, Easu. Jacob had tricked their father Isaac out of Easu’s birthright, and Easu had vowed to kill his brother. And before the two brothers met again, Jacob was challenged by God on a mountaintop in the middle of the night. There, he wrestled in a life-or-death match with an angel, which pulled Jacob’s leg out of its socket– yet he locked up with the angel until daybreak. At dawn, the angel pleaded to be let go, but Jacob refused until the angel blessed him. The angel did so– and changed Jacob’s name to “Israel”, which translated, means, “one who wrestled with God.”
That’s a Christmas story all right. We’re still getting there. I told you that story so I could tell you this one:
We are Israel today.
Well, I am anyway. I shouldn’t speak for you.
I am a person who wrestles with God. What He wants of me. What He demands of me. How He wants me to lead my family. How He wants me to lead my students. How He wants me to lead my life. I wrestle with God against my own temptations, against my own will power, against my own stubborn disbelief in the midst of belief.
I am Israel. I am captive to my own weaknesses, and I wrestle with Him unceasingly. Bless me, Lord, that we can stop fighting.
And yet, there are times where I just decide to shut up and do it God’s way, because it’s the only way I know to salvation.
I think that the reason that so many Christian cranks cling to strongly to the “Keep Christ in Christmas” effort is that Christmas is just about the last public remnant of Christian culture. There was an era in Western tradition where a person could easily be catechized from the greater society. Even if parents were not very observant, their children would learn the tenants of salvation through the diffusion of Christian society.
It’s no longer that way. But don’t worry, dear reader: I’m not going to grind that axe right now.
But Christmas– and more specifically, Christmas carols– might be the last piece of the public catechesis in the Western tradition.
There is a short post by the Catholic blogger Jennifer Fulweiler from before she became part of the Catholic blogging-industrial-complex (a term of amusement, not contempt) where she remembered her atheist days, being dumbstruck in a mall when the music played “What Child Is This?” over the speakers. She talked about how the song demanded an answer– was this holiday just a fourth-quarter sales booster, or was it a time of Joy at the birth of a new born king? What kind of child was this?
One of my favorite Christmas songs isn’t really a Christmas song. Properly speaking, it’s an Advent song: O Come O Come Emmanuel.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”, is a statement that Our Lord is real, and has come to earth to break the bonds of sin.
This song makes me want to cry. I am Israel. I am one that wrestles with God. Without Him, I sit in lonely exile– unable to live up to the thing for which I was made– Heaven. Yet if the song is true– that God is with us– then it means that all my frail temptations, all my favorite sins, and all my fears and doubts, are nothing to His ransom. Rejoice, rejoice! God has come to me, me who wrestles with God.
I doubt that “The First Noel” is anyone’s favorite Christmas song unless you are a baritone singer with a hammy disposition. Then, it’s probably your favorite. Maybe the reason that it’s no one’s favorite is because every version of the song that you know is over the top and cheesy.
But lately, I’ve come to think of it as my song.
The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!
One day, I’ll share the story of how I tumbled into the arms of Jesus and Our Lady, having been lost in the pit into which I dug for myself. It is the story of the worst year of my life, and how only when I reached rock bottom could I ever really look up and ponder Heaven.
It’s not my favorite story, but it’s true and I don’t hide from it. It’s not my favorite because it means I have to admit that I am not my own master– and that when I’ve tried to live my life by Polonius’s maxim “to thine own self be true,” I lived it right into sad desperation. I am not my own king– and when I pretend to be so, it nearly ruins my life.
Jesus is my king– He who has saved it and transformed it into something way better, if way harder. And on Christmas night, that first Noel, was born the King of me, Israel. King of the man who wrestles with God.
Jacob’s story of wrestling with God is a Christmas story. It’s the story of a broken, sinful person, who had to face up to all the crap he had made in his own life. But it’s a Christmas story because the story doesn’t end there. Jacob had to confront the mess he made and all the ways he wasn’t living up to the life God had made for him.
And when that wrestling got most real– when he was hurt, tired, and could not go further, the fight stopped when Jacob– he who wrestled with God– gave up the fight and asked God’s blessing. That blessing would change Jacob’s life– and change the world.
Two thousand years later, God’s people still wrestled with Him. Two thousand years from then, we still do.
God is with us. He is the babe born in that manger on that silent night.
O come, let us adore Him.
WRC locuta est on December 24th 2014
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