Many of you are sitting down to write your annual family Christmas letter. You will update us on all the grand goings-on in your family this year, careful to edit out the sorrows or at least paint them over with spiritual sentiment. We will learn about your triumphant children and your spectacular summer vacation and the declining health of your parents. It will go on too long, and we won’t read all of it (except for yours, which we eagerly anticipate), but the publicist in you demands that you let us know details personal enough to be revealing but (let’s hope) not personal enough to be embarrassing.
I thought about writing one of those to you this month, but whatever blessings I count for myself and my family this year and whatever woes we have known are better celebrated and suffered privately. It’s hypocrisy to promote an image of felicity that hides foibles. It’s imprudent to expose pain to people who are in no position to bear the burdens of life with you.
Our culture of celebrity prizes American idols who are too good to be true. And the flip side of that is a culture of voyeurism that eats up private revelations of sickness and sin. Both lack the decent reticence that makes for healthy neighborliness. Good (figurative) fences make good neighbors?
The poet W.H. Auden penned a keen quip that goes to the point: “Private faces in public places/ are wiser and nicer/ than public faces in private places.”
There is Christmas truth in this. Christians claim that God came to be among us in Jesus of Nazareth. We make bold claims about how Jesus revealed the face of God to us in his earthly and earthy life. Jesus was God incarnate — God with skin on, so to speak. The gospel writer John summarizes: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
But the same flesh that revealed God also concealed God. While God was in Christ fully, God was not fully known. What God chose to reveal to us in the life of Jesus is true altogether. But there remains what the Latins called the “Deus absconditus” — the hidden God. We can trust that God is entirely good, completely faithful, unconditionally loving and totally capable of accomplishing God’s purposes and fulfilling God’s promises. What God does not tell us is enough to keep us aware of the differences between us.
Christmas celebrates God’s coming close. But there is yet an infinite qualitative difference between God and us that, as the Danish philosopher and preacher Soren Kierkegaard put it, keeps us both respectful and curious at the same time.
While the mystery of who God is comes clearer in the Christmas story, if it were entirely clear, the story would have ended there with everyone believers. But mysteries keep on giving by not giving up everything at once. They keep on calling us to probe more, to yearn more, to want more. God seems to have understood this by giving us enough in our stocking of knowledge to sense the blessing of Christmas presence, without robbing us of the childlike longing for additional Christmas presents.
So maybe I’ve been a little hard on the Christmas letter thing, given that no matter what you choose to tell, there is always more you could have. Send them on, then, and make a curmudgeon smile.
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is a regular feature underwritten by Advocate Publishing and by the neighborhood business people and churches listed on these pages. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.