The Christmas story is ancient, well known and hardly known at the same time. Here, it is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt as it is that familiarity makes us blind. The more we are used to seeing something, the less we really see it. Familiarity reveals our own expectations more than anything else. It puts blinders on us that keep out the unexpected and the unknown. Familiarity certainly makes us comfortable. We can relax in the familiar, even soak ourselves into a dreamy bliss in the comfort of expected familiarity. Christmas memories and family traditions are among our most familiar treasures.
What the familiar doesn’t do is keep us on our toes. It doesn’t keep us sharp, alert, awake or prepared to encounter the unexpected, the unknown. It makes us lazy and content with our laziness. Once we know a thing or think we know a thing, we stop trying to know it better. Once we know it, we catalog it and file it away. We assume that we already know all we need to know about it. Familiarity strangles curiosity and wonder. Familiarity blocks out black swans, to use a term coined by N.N. Taleb to describe not merely what is unexpected, but that class of the unexpected that strikes with the force to completely change everything. The black swan represents what is so completely unknown as to be unthinkable.
Christ is the ultimate Black Swan, who has made the single greatest difference the world has ever known—and can ever know. Though Christ had been prophesied for thousands of years in the Old Testament, His actual arrival came as a complete surprise. Those who most expected it—the ancient Jews—didn’t see it. They still don’t. Christ, who is a thousand standard deviations from the norm, simply doesn’t register on our instruments.
It is not that Christ came in a lowly manger in an obscure corner of Palestine, and now we can be done with it. No! Christ came and we can never be done with it. Christ’s coming will never be over. He brought eternity to our miserable little world. He turned on a light that cannot be turned off. No one can escape His light. We had to learn to live in it. So, we grew familiar with His story, and by becoming familiar with it, we have relaxed and soaked ourselves into a dreamy bliss of children’s fables of donkey stables, of mystic choirs on moonlit hills.
And we’ve convinced ourselves that the dreamy bliss of our Christmas expectations, of hearth and home, of family and friends, of mulled wine and eggnog provide the essential reason for the season. “Krismus is about family,” we say, hoping to avoid the blood and pain of the birth of Love, and His unrelenting demands upon us. We mumble God’s name in the hope that He won’t notice us, that He won’t call on us to answer His question. We turn away from Him, averting our eyes, hoping not to catch His, lest He call us to some response. We call it krismus, fudging the name of God in the hope that He won’t hear us, that He won’t look our way, that He won’t think that we are talking to Him. We don’t want Him to see us, to see our brokenness, to see the state of our hearts and souls—or our broken families. So, we mumble—Merry krismus, Happy holidays, Season’s greetings—hoping not to invoke the Lord of life or the holiness of the holiday.
Is the krismus season really about Kris? We’ve plastered over His story with fairytales about Kris Kringle and St. Nick—pagan stories, false stories, imaginary stories that trip the light fantastic in the shimmering raiment of tinsel and children’s dress-up dramas, of desert Arabs and angels in the night, of kitsch and kin, and the snow white lies of blather and prattle, and dancer and blixen, of jabber and palaver, and personal fiction. Our krismus portraits are too often painted in the syrupy light of Thomas Kinkade, familiar scenes of an idyllic time, of bygone days. The problem with krismus memories is that the past never actually was the way we think it used to be.
It never was about Kris or Nick, or stockings on the fireplace. It never was about Rudolph or Santa, neither Scrooge nor Grinch, nor sugar plum fairies. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s His story and His mass. Understanding Christ’s mass will take some explanation because the mass of Christ comes like the black swan that He is—predicted, yet completely outside of the field of expectation. Christ is never what we expect because He comes from outside of the known universe.
There are at least two kinds of unknowns. The expected unknown, the kind we speculate about and if we’re smart, we plan for. Expected unknowns are rare possibilities, and the critical question is when they will happen. The more dangerous unknown is the unknowable unknown that blindsides us every time because it cannot be expected. We never see it coming. The unknowable unknown is unimaginable. We can’t see it at all until it is upon us. And even when we see it, it doesn’t register. The unknowable unknown has no precedents or categories of explanation. It cannot be categorized and filed away. An unknowable unknown is perfectly unique, like nothing else. We can’t refer to it by saying that it’s like something else because it isn’t. It’s not like anything else that ever was or ever will be again. I’m talking about the mass of Christ—His coming, His presence, His reality. He is everything we hope for, yet nothing like we expect.
What is this mass of Christ? It’s not what we think it is. It’s not candles or robes, not smells or bells. From physics, mass is the property of a body that causes it to have weight in a gravitational field. A body without mass is not real—not on this earth. All bodies have mass. And so we celebrate (remember) the coming of Christ’s mass into this world—bodily.
A mass is also an ill-structured collection of similar things, as in “a mass of refugees fled across the border.” The mass of Christ is also a collection, an assemblage of people. Christ’s mass is His body in this world. It’s an ill-structured collection of peculiar people who gather and scatter in His name. Some are more scattered than gathered, though the call to gather provides an annual event that is hard to miss. Some hear it semi-annually and also cumulate in the Spring, but that’s another story.
Mass in the plural also refers to the common people, to ordinary people, to the masses. So, from this we understand Christ’s masses to be common, ordinary people. The masses belong to Christ because Christ is God and everything belongs to God. This doesn’t mean that the masses are all going to be saved—not all of them but a mass of them. It also means that we will all appear before the bench in judgment, a massive judgment. God’s judgment by Christ is our common destiny. Christ will judge the masses.
There’s more. Mass is also a property of something that is great in magnitude, as in “he received a mass of correspondence.” Here we see that Christ’s mass is great in magnitude. Christ’s mass is a big deal, a really big deal. It is massive. His throng is massive.
Mass can also be used as a verb to suggest the joining together into a mass. A mass can be collected or formed by bringing various things or people together, as in “crowds were massing in the church.” Such a joining together is integral to Christ’s mass. Christ’s people mass together every Lord’s Day.
Mass can also be used as an adjective to suggest that things can be formed out of separate units and gathered into a whole or unity. Here we see that Christ’s mass describes the unity of the whole. Indeed, when the whole is large, the unity is massive. We pray for a massive unity in Christ.
Finally, some churches refer to the celebration of the Eucharist as a Mass. It’s not just a Roman Catholic thing, but has roots in the Upper Room. Today, this kind of Mass usually has a musical setting and a sequence of prayers and such that culminate in the Lord’s Supper. So, Christ’s mass is also a feeding of the body. Not just cookies and cakes and pies, not just fudge and brittle and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but bread and wine, body and blood. Christ’s mass is nourishment for body and soul.
Perhaps we can begin to recapture the reason for the season by not fudging on its name. It’s not krismus. It’s Christ-mass. It sounds odd to ears unaccustomed to truth. It may take a little getting used to, but I hope not.