Consider the ant....
So Christmas is over but winter's still here.
You know what they say about the Christmas Spirit lasting all year long, but maybe it's not working for you. You think you left yours at Target on December 26, while you watched grinches return the silver-plated back scratchers their mothers-in-law put under the tree. And now in February, in the middle of cloudy days and slushy streets and not a tulip in sight, you'd cheerfully drop-kick anybody who suggests you should have leftover Christmas Spirit.
Now, don't get me wrong — I hope you love Christmas! I do. It's the rest of the year that gets in the way.
After the carols evaporate and the twinkly lights come down, have you ever wondered what "Christmas Spirit" really means? Is it about running up your Visa to buy people you don't like things they don't need, then dropping a quarter in the red kettle to earn a warm fuzzy?
Sometimes I'm grateful the cashiers wish me "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" nowadays, because I don't want to drag Christ into the Winter Retail Festival. I suspect He'd rather keep his distance.
But when January rolled around, maybe you realized you fell into "Happy Holidays" along with the cashiers. Perhaps you didn't contemplate the Manger-Baby until the Christmas Eve Service, then as you headed home to open presents, you put Him guiltily back on the shelf till next year.
Maybe you're like me: Sometimes, you're not sure you get it anymore.
How many times can one person stomach Luke, Chapter 2? How excited can you get about Hark, the Herald Angel, and the kid in the straw-filled crib? Yeah, the holiday's all about Jesus; everybody knows that. There's this baby who's special, and He's gonna die on the cross in a couple months at Easter, and we're glad He came to save us....
But God becoming man? Maybe you never managed to wrap your head around that one in 2007. Yahweh weighing in at 7 lbs., 10 oz. is hard to grasp.
So I hope you'll forgive me if I try for a little Christmas in February. I could use it. If you'd like to come along for the ride, I'm not going far — just to an anthill. Specifically, the one those little picnic-wreckers will build on your sidewalk in May.
Consider the Ant
Imagine that tonight, an angel comes to you just as you drift off to dreamland. "Waaaazzzuuup?" he says, waving his wings.
You vow never to eat Taco Bell after midnight again, and try to switch dreams.
"Pay attention," says the angel. "My name's Gabe, and God has a message for you! He wants you to minister to ants."
"Okay," you agree. "Aunt Jane could really use some Jesus, if you know what I mean —"
Gabe laughs. "No, silly — I said ants! Six legs; invade your barbeque?"
"Are you serious? Uh, I guess I could buy some really small copies of the Four Spiritual Laws —"
"I've got a better idea. Why don't we turn you into a bug?"
You laugh. The angel doesn't. "How can you know what it's like to live in fear of size nines unless you're two millimeters tall?" he asks impatiently.
"Can't I watch The Discovery Channel?"
"That's for wusses!" scoffs Gabe. "Think of the benefits! Six legs! Big pinchers! Tasting good when you're dipped in chocolate —"
"Um, I know I prayed for God's will in my life, but —"
"Exactly! And His will is for you to spend the rest of your life as an insect. It might be a tad short; ants only live 2 months —"
"Wait," you cry desperately. "When I said 'God's will,' what I meant was —"
"So here's your mission, Sir Ant!" continues Gabe, warming to his subject. "Try to convince your new pals, the ones with brains the size of a grain of sand, that God loves them. Most of them won't get it, so eventually they'll attack you by the thousands —"
"Attack me?" you squeak.
"Your last feeling in life will be countless excruciatingly-painful pincher bites, until you're begging for somebody to step on you. Most of the ants won't care you ever lived or died, and they'll use your mangled body for food."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Hey, you asked for God's will!" says Gabe cheerfully. "So here we go; on the count of one ... two ..."
Just before "three," you sit bold upright in bed, drenched in sweat.
Christmas vs. Easter
Easter is much easier to understand than Christmas.
We humans are pretty good at death and destruction. So when it comes to Jesus dying, we get that. And rising from the dead — there are days when it seems too good to be true, but the concept isn't hard.
However, when we think about God bawling and making dirty diapers; the Almighty becoming an ant ... well, a dying man is easier to grasp than a humble God.
The concept is so difficult that we turn Christmas into Easter. Jesus was born to die; the baby grew up in the shadow of the cross; blah, blah, blah. Of course, it's all true so far as it goes. To be blunt, the God-Made-Ant came to be squashed. But Christmas has a narrative of its own.
Easter proclaims heaven; Christmas is about here-and-now abundant life. Advent tells us that while we need to keep the Prize in sight, God thought earth-life was important enough to do it with us. Jesus was in it from cradle to grave; from learning to talk through saying good-bye. Our eternity begins in time and our years are not wasted, because Jesus said "life matters" in the most profound way possible.
Easter says to tell people about Jesus. Christmas says Jesus was people. Advent proclaims the glory and shame of mortals; the limits of an ant body with the image of God struggling to get out. If Jesus could inhabit this fleshy cocoon, no one who wears humanity — including you — is less than precious. C. S. Lewis said all of us are immortals with skin on, and inside we're becoming creatures so beautiful and terrible that we couldn't bear to look on each other without the mask of flesh.
Easter says one day every tear will be wiped away. Christmas tells us that even when we suffer, we're living in the image of Christ — and our agony has a purpose. God loved us enough to become an ant, inhabiting our pain and misery and scarred flesh to show us the glories of being human. If God's suffering redeemed the world, it's somehow possible to believe our suffering could turn around for good.
Of course, sometimes that's a little hard to swallow — especially if somebody just done you wrong.
Being Jesus Wasn't a Rose Garden
The first time we witness it in the Bible is the Grudge Match in the Desert: Jesus v. Satan. The Devil tempts Him with three whoppers, twisting Scripture into contortions like only he could do. But it happened much sooner for the first time.
You know, the first time somebody sinned against Jesus.
Maybe a bully stole His sandwich and He turned the other cheek. Maybe He found out Mary and Joseph were light years from perfect. But once they began, the sins didn't end until the far side of the cross.
This was after Jesus had already become an ant. After perfect union with the Father was broken; after discovering the bodily functions that come with being flesh; after His first skinned knee and case of the flu. After heaven was a dim memory and angelsong came only in snatches of dreams. The One who'd never sinned was cheated, lied to, yelled at, stomped on, gossiped about, spit on, beaten up, betrayed ... and then crucified.
Yet somehow, it seems like most of His followers have a deeply-ingrained idea that life is fair. Well, we're half-right.
Life is supposed to be fair. It started that way, once upon a time. Unfortunately, we messed up our end of the deal. That's why God switched to grace.
A magazine I write for is several weeks late with their check and this is the second time it's happened and right now, I'm not sure how the electric bill's getting paid. So that means God must be failing to keep an unspoken covenant that none of life's wittle bruises will touch me. Clearly, it can't be God's will for me to have problems. I'm in ministry, you know.
Maybe you can relate. You decided to try living like Jesus and people climbed over you on their way to the top. You stopped sleeping with your boyfriend and he dumped you. You prayed harder than you ever had before, and the chemo still didn't work for your dad. Maybe God got so distracted keeping His eye on the sparrow that He forgot about you.
If you're a heathen like me, perhaps you holler at Him regularly about such things.
Then a sunset hits me right between the eyes and I find out the Spirit actually touches people with the drivel that I write and my wife cuddles with me for no reason except she loves me. And I realize the remarkable thing isn't the missing check that's failing to paying our electric bill. It's that anything good still exists in the middle of a planet full of self-serving bums like me.
Then I realize something even more remarkable: Jesus, who wasn't a self-serving bum, decided to live through this mess, just so he could relate when I mutter, "Lord, do you want me to live without power next month?"
If God drafted me for anthood, I'd run to Canada. But Jesus came and let everybody and their brother sin against Him so He could understand — not from the distance of heaven, but from the trenches of earth — what it meant to have an unpaid electric bill.
(Yes, I realize electricity was in short supply in 33 AD. You know what I mean.)
The girl was an ethnic minority in a segregated ghetto town. Her childhood was spent in the trailer park by the tracks, just outside a village where everybody knew everything about everybody. Worse, she was a female in a culture that liked to pray, "Thank God I'm not a heathen, a slave — or a woman."
Her boyfriend was about to give back the promise ring and dump her. But who could blame him? Her folks conveniently sent her out of town to stay with some relatives, but everybody knew. She was already showing. And she was only 15.
By any other name, she was worthless.
But God still cared for her; even spoke to her. Through the angel He said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you, and you're blessed among women."
Now, God could've sent Gabriel anywhere. Maybe Rome, the center of the world ... someplace in Caesar's Palace (and not the one in Vegas). Instead, He picked a backwoods redneck town and a charity case from the youth group. Mary was worthless to every pair of eyes except God's.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you feel more like swine than pearls yourself.
Two of my friends committed suicide in a two-year stretch. And they both claimed Jesus as Savior. Somehow they were convinced God had nothing more for their lives. They thought they were worthless outcasts, crying to the vacant heavens and hearing silence in return. Their lives were derailed with no hope of anything good happening ever again.
Perhaps they thought they'd be better off in heaven. And I do believe I'll see them there, because Easter is true. But they completely missed the Incarnation.
God calls down through the years to say, "You, the outcast with a past ... you, the scarred sinner who thinks God has left you for good ... you, the hurting battered soul who doesn't know how you'll make it through an hour much less a month; a year; a life ... Christmas is for you."
See the glory Mary carried in her heart, right past the ones who crossed to the other side when she walked down the street. Reach across history to the Man born of a worthless teenager. See the way He carried His burdens so He could relate to you; so you could believe God might have a purpose in your pain. Ask the one who was despised and rejected by men to use you for something marvelous.
It worked for Mary. It can transform you.
I know a woman who married her sweetheart and settled down for some happily ever after. Then her beloved endured a traumatic head injury. He survived, but something went horribly wrong: He now suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
He works in an automotive plant when the medication's working. Other times, he's threatened his wife with a knife because he thought she was evil, or actually believed he was God.
Neither one of them signed up for this when they took their marriage vows. The wife told me that on the occasions when her husband is lucid, they like to talk about heaven; how all things will be made new and they'll live without the shadow of any disease. Easter can get us that far.
But without the Incarnation, everything stops there. Life meanwhile is a pointless affair punctuated alternately by terror and sadness. The husband should be institutionalized or just end it all sometime when his disease plunges him to the depths of despair. The wife should divorce him and move on with life.
But the Incarnation says life is precious and what we do on earth matters to heaven. Even more remarkably, it says suffering has a purpose.
Jesus endured an ant's body for 33 years so we'd know God is with us through it all. He cried for the dead and suffered with the broken because we needed direction and were too foolish to hear it from anyone but another human. Then He bled from a flogging and a dubious crown before He hung on the cross to save the world.
Is it possible that somehow, when we live in the image of Christ, our suffering redeems someone, too? I don't mean we become Messiahs — but somehow, our suffering helps someone see the face of their suffering Savior; gives them courage to keep going?
Maybe you have the winter blues. Maybe you just lived through another Valentine's Day alone, and the only men in your life were Ben and Jerry while you drowned your sorrows in ice cream. Maybe your life has been marked by greater tragedy: Death or illness; suffering I couldn't name if I tried.
You already know to look forward to heaven — if you can see that far. But perhaps it's easy to forget about looking back to Christmas — the time when God became an Ant; when we learned exactly how precious we were to Him and how life could still offer joy in the pain; when we discovered that suffering was more than a chasing after the wind.
If you feel empty, consider the ant. Then consider the Savior who became one — not just so you could go to heaven, but so that your life would mean more than you can imagine in the mean time.
It's possible to find some leftover Christmas Spirit at the manger. In fact, it's possible to see what life is all about. Even in February.
Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.