Reason to celebrate

My mother was no pushover when it came to discipline and I never felt like I got away with much when I was a kid. But when the infraction was particularly serious she would resort to those fearsome words that strike terror into the heart of every child: “Wait ‘til your father gets home!”

And wait I did, in fear and trembling. Pa lived an orderly life. You could set your clock by his daily routines. At precisely 5:00 p.m. he would pull into the driveway, home from work. So at 4:55 I headed for the garage and awaited his arrival. I would open the car door for him, greet him with my sunniest smile, carry his lunchbox in one hand and hold his hand with the other. We would chat as we approached the house. Who could spank such a loving child?

Well, sometimes it helped a little. My dad was too good a father to let me get away scot-free.

One day he stopped me dead in my tracks.

“How was your day?” I asked, as casually as I could.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What kind of trouble did you get into today?”

I was stunned that he saw through my strategy. Beyond that I was hurt that he knew I was using our relationship to mitigate my punishment. Spankings notwithstanding, I truly loved my dad and (on most days) was genuinely happy to see him come home. Now I was more ashamed of my failed attempt at manipulation than of whatever crime I had perpetrated. I made a point after that day to greet him at the garage now and then without any ulterior motives. He deserved my affection with no strings attached.

I clearly recall the relief once punishment had been meted out. Even with a smarting behind, I had the assurance of being forgiven for whatever I had done. It was over. For the moment at least, I had a clean slate. Far more miserable than the anticipation of punishment was the ill feeling that accompanied being at odds with my father. The world wasn’t right as long as some unresolved issue remained between us. The time in between my bad behaviour and being reconciled with Pa was agonizing.

Yetzer hara

Even now, on a spiritual level some sense of that inner turmoil resonates in me from time to time, especially during Advent. As we approach Christmas, with all its light and joy, the angel chorus, the miraculous star, the Prince of Peace born in a manger, I can’t help but think of the reason he came. The lovely stories surrounding Christmas appeal even to a world that doesn’t believe in Jesus. But they soon give way to accounts of the wholesale slaughter of innocent babies, the evil plots of religious zealots and the gruesome murder of the Son of God on a criminal’s cross. You never hear songs about that piped in through the shopping mall speakers.

When I consider the Child promised to us centuries before his arrival and the oddly glorious austerity surrounding his birth, I might well be afraid to approach that humble stable. After all, I know how his story unfolded. I know how he suffered and died. And I know why he had to do it. It was because of me.

But I also know the rest of the story – that death itself couldn’t hold him down, that he rose from the grave “the firstfruits” of the dead and that one day he’s coming back to take me home – his Father’s home and thanks to him, my Father’s home.

Meanwhile, here I am – a forgiven child of God who still struggles daily with my natural inclination to sin. I’m bent that way. The Jews call it “yetzer hara.” I won’t be rid of it until I die. There’s no way to cover it up or sugar coat it. When I talk to my heavenly Father, I might as well admit it and come clean. There’s no need to butter him up in the hopes of diminishing my well-deserved punishment. Christ secures my forgiveness with his righteousness. I don’t have to fear the reunion with my Father.

He’s too good a Father to let me get off scot-free, though. There’s nothing cheap about free grace. An unimaginably high price was paid for my peace with God. So whenever I think about that makeshift cradle at Bethlehem I need to consider as well the cross at Calvary. The lingering sting of the pain I caused nevertheless brings with it a peace that passes all understanding.

Light the candles and bring on the Christmas hymns – we have reason to celebrate!


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