If Christmas is true, courage may be required.
One of the first clues that there is something rather more to Christmas than babies and shepherds and happy angels singing is the savage reaction elicited by the baby's birth. Not every baby provokes, by its mere arrival, mass murder by the authorities. But this baby did. And it was only by God's miraculous intervention that Jesus didn't suffer the same unhappy fate as his peers.
It's easy to blame it all on the geo-political concerns of King Herod and the general brutality of his reign. But something more than merely his own political fortunes was animating King Herod's actions that dark night, even if he himself didn't perceive it.
The last book in the bible pierces the veil between the temporal world and the eternal world to give us a more complete picture of the Christmas story.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne...Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. - Revelation 12:1-7
Well my goodness. The birth that took place in Bethlehem precipitated an all-out war in heaven against a seven-headed dragon who, it seems, was determined to consume the baby in the manger. This is a rather more alarming vision of the significance of Christmas than the lighted decorations one sees on a typical holiday lawn. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen any Christmas decorations of an army of angels giving a beatdown to a seven-headed dragon. But maybe that's just me.
If Christmas is true, the resulting events produced rejoicing in heaven because "the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down."
But the aftermath is rather more alarming for those of us who haven't yet made our way to heaven:
Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury...
As a result of the war in heaven, Satan and his minions have been evicted and are, even now, loose in the world. The very same writer of the apocalyptic Christmas story wrote in another place, "The whole world is under the power of the Evil One." But it gets worse. Having been frustrated in his efforts to destroy either the baby, or the woman who gave birth to him, the dragon and his angels are waging war against the rest of the woman's offspring. Who are the offspring you ask? Well, this is who they are:
...those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. -- Revelation 12:17b
Make special note of that word testimony. The targets of the dragon and his demonic hoards are not merely those who adhere to God's moral guidelines in their personal lives, but those who also give open verbal witness to the identity and significance of that baby in the manger. The use of "hold fast" implies that some of the offspring live with the temptation to loosen their grip on that testimony – to weaken their commitment, whether a commitment to the giving of such testimony, or to the truth of it at all. More on this later.
So to recap, here is where we find ourselves: The child born in the stable that night is destined to rule the nations. His birth, orchestrated by God, was intentionally aimed as a dagger at the power and influence of Satan. Satan recognized it as such, but was ultimately frustrated in his desire to kill the baby and thwart God's plans. In the ensuing open war between the angels, Satan was defeated and forcibly thrown down from heaven. He now occupies the earth and, knowing his time is short, seeks to prolong his power by waging war against those whose fidelity to the Christmas child includes both moral uprightness and open witness to the truth of it all.
If all of this is true, what are we to do? Well, it turns out the baby in the manger had a little brother whose name was James. Here was his ancient recommendation: "resist the devil". And as it turns out, in the apocalyptic Christmas story we've been ruminating on, the angels demonstrated some success with their own resistance. Maybe there's something to learn from their approach.
The writer of this more prickly version of the Christmas story suggests that two weapons in the angelic arsenal accounted for their victory over the dragon.
They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.
Well, in point of fact, the Lamb and the Christmas child are one and the same person. So the angels, in part, overcame the dragon by the blood of the very child the dragon hoped to devour. But they had another unexpected weapon at their disposal: the word of their testimony.
There's that word "testimony" again. Apparently, if this story is to be believed, there is something supernatural that occurs when someone, in conflict with the strivings of Satan, gives open verbal witness to the truth.
At one level, the idea that speaking the truth openly could possibly have an actual supernatural effect on the cosmic conflict between God and Satan seems surprising. But if we take such a thing at face value, it offers a substantial explanatory lens through through which to view what we often see taking place in the world around us. How much effort is being expended, by those who would do evil, in their effort to obscure and/or mute the truth? The manic modern effort to "control the narrative" in ways that are inconsistent with the truth suggests something about the intuitions regarding truth's power that are held by those who have allied themselves with the dragon.
When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, "one word of truth outweighs the whole world", it may be that there was nothing hyperbolic in his statement at all. If the writer of Revelation is to be believed, Solzhenitsyn was merely writing from a deep intuition that is more true than we typically perceive.
If we are going to take lessons from the angels in how to resist Satanic forces, it will start with the blood of Jesus and combine with an uncompromising witness to the full meaning and identity of that baby in the manger. We cannot confine our witness to the cuddly parts alone. We must also speak the truth about the intentional threat posed by the Christmas child to the world's fallenness and to those who love darkness. And this we must do even though such testimony will be unwelcome.
A word of truth, with and about the blood of the Lamb, can alter the course of history.
There's a large on-going debate among modern Christians over the place of winsomeness in our "word of testimony". Winsomeness has a place in terms of style, but it is not the only style we need for communicating what is true. The hard fact is that we simply cannot control, through winsomeness or any other means, the way someone else reacts to the truth. If by "winsomeness" someone means never telling another person anything that person doesn't want to hear, then "winsomeness" becomes indistinguishable from silence where the truth is concerned. And silence is the opposite of testimony, and amounts to an abdication on the part of a believer. It inevitably evinces a form of hatred toward those who most need to hear what they would perhaps rather not.
Silence is also an act of disloyalty to the baby in the manger.
We live in an increasingly hostile world that is becoming ever more adversarial toward anyone who bears witness to the truth. In the angelic conflict surrounding the birth of Jesus, the dragon and his allies were the very definition of adversarial, and they were actively opposed to the truth (cf. Jesus many comments about the character of Satan). But the angels persisted in the face of Satanic resistance and for a very particular reason.
They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
For the angels who prevailed, their love for their own lives took a back seat to their loyalty toward the child who was at the center of the conflict. It was this ordering of their loves and priorities that enabled them to persist in the face of demonic opposition. Recent events surrounding Covid, and the modern church's response, suggest that some of the church has decided that there are few priorities that take precedence over our own self-preservation. We can debate the merits and failures of all of that and probably should, but for now I just want to observe that it is simply not the case that self-preservation is, or has ever been, the highest good.
In fact, self-preservation turns out to be almost the opposite of the true meaning of Christmas.
So if Christmas is true, there is a dragon loose in the world. We are called to resist. With the blood of the Lamb, we must identify our loyalties openly and speak the words without apology. Our lives and comforts need to take a backseat to the cause of the baby in the manger.
If Christmas is true, courage may be required.