By Bob Perry
If Christmas is supposed to be about “Peace on Earth,” why all the chaos and stress at this time of year? It started when we, through an ironic accident of language, warped Bethlehem into bedlam. But the history of that change is incidental to what we’ve done since then. It starts every “Black Friday.” The truth is that God never promised us peace on Earth. But he did send a Savior to Bethlehem to offer peace between God and man. We can begin to reclaim the meaning of Christmas by first learning to turn bedlam back to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem Becomes Bedlam (Literally)
It all started back in 1247 when the Sheriff of London (a man named Simon FitzMary) founded a small monastery just outside the city. He dedicated it to serving the sisters and brothers of the holy order named “The Star of Bethlehem.” The monastery’s sponsoring church used the building to house and entertain the bishop and canons of St. Mary of Bethlehem. Soon, it became known as the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem.
By 1330, records show that the priory had become a hospital. And by 1403, some of its patients had begun to remain there permanently. When King Henry VIII later dissolved the Catholic monasteries in Britain, the city of London took over the hospital. In 1547 it was officially designated as an insane asylum. Soon, it became infamous for the brutal ill-treatment of those who lived there. People outside could hear the clamor, commotion, and pandemonium of the mentally disturbed patients inside. It didn’t take long for the locals to begin equating the name of the place with the chaos they heard emanating from within it. And because they spoke in a dialect that didn’t quite live up to the King’s English, their cockney pronunciation of Bethlehem came out as “bedlam.”
So, in a way that only human beings could contrive, the word we now use to describe lunacy and chaos actually has its source in the name of the city of Jesus’ birth.
What We’ve Made Christmas
The linguistic origin of “bedlam” is ironic. But the more modern way we have transformed Christmas from Bethlehem into bedlam is embarrassingly real. Though the madness begins earlier every year, “Black Friday” now marks the beginning of the Christmas season. In the past, that special day has come complete with mall shootings, annual brawls, and the frenzy we have come to expect both online and at our favorite retail locations.
The lunatics are shopping in the asylum.
Even people who aren’t Christians seem to realize that this madness is not “the reason for the season.” Jesus is. But the chaos in which we all participate is the reflection of a deeper flaw in the way we have come to celebrate his birth. We are complicit in turning what was supposed to be about the celebration of the birth of Christ into a consumer marketing extravaganza. And it started with the generous idea that we should give each other gifts.
Gift Giving Gone Haywire
There is some logic to the whole gift-giving idea we now associate with Christmas. God gave us the gift of his Son. The wise men (“Magi“) in the biblical story brought gifts to honor the newborn king. To memorialize those, we began giving gifts to one another. So far, so good.
But then we did something humans always tend to do. We took something good and corrupted it. Once we commercialized the gift-giving, the basement was the limit. Giving gifts became a form of worship. This year, the average American will spend about $920 for Christmas. That means that as a nation we spend over $1 Trillion. As a point of reference, the 2019 U. S. Defense Department budget was $652 Billion.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we might have overdone the gift-giving thing.
A Warped Idea Of Giving
The point of the Christmas story seems to be buried at the bottom of our shopping bags. Christmas is not about roasting chestnuts by an open fire. And it isn’t a time for Santa to reward the nice little boys and girls. It certainly isn’t about eggnog, or even so that we could have a special time to feel good about our families. These are all nice things. There is nothing wrong with any of them.
But they are not the heart of Christmas.
The incarnation — the second person of the Trinity becoming a real, live human being — was a one-way gift. It was a gift meant to offer peace with those of us who’ve turned Bethlehem into bedlam. It is a gift offered by a God who owed us nothing.
The peace treaty was undeserved and unsolicited:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'”
It was a peace treaty between heaven and Earth.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” (Romans 5:1-2)
Despite what we’ve turned it into, these passages are not about our joy, or our giving, or our love, or our families. The focus is on God alone.
Back To Bethlehem
It is human nature to turn things that are supposed to be about God into things that are all about us. It makes us feel good to say that Christmas is our hope for “peace on earth.” But God knows that hasn’t proved true over the 2000 years since the first Christmas. World peace didn’t break out on that cold winter morning in Bethlehem. God came down in a human covering to offer the only possible way of reconciliation between His perfect moral goodness and the rebels who have been creating bedlam since the day they arrived on the scene.
We’ve been waging war with God. And Christmas is His peace treaty.
The joy comes in realizing that to be true. The giving and love come in mimicking the selflessness we witnessed in the gift He gave. That gift cost us nothing. Our families are the means by which we replicate and disseminate a love “for all the people.” The difference is important. Each of these things is impossible to celebrate appropriately unless we first make peace with our Creator and Savior.
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.'” (Luke 1:15)
This is not a naive call to boycott Christmas. It’s nothing more than encouragement to change our mindset and refuse to take part in the bedlam. Shop less. Contemplate more.
I’ve never seen it used as a Christmas card, but I can’t imagine a better representation of what we Bedlamites have made Christmas into than the fresco on the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo titled, “The Creation of Adam.” In the most gracious act in human history, the Creator himself reached down to touch us in human form. And we appear only vaguely interested.
Look at the way God is stretching to reach out to the man – and at the way, the first Bedlamite halfheartedly reaches back.
May we all celebrate this Christmas by rethinking Michelangelo’s artful depiction of our state. “Peace on Earth” is a worthy goal. But “Peace with God” must come first. Christmas is meant to remind us of the subtle difference.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Jesus, You and the Essentials of Christianity – Episode 14 Video DOWNLOAD by Frank Turek (DVD)
If God Why Evil. Why Natural Disasters (PowerPoint download) by Frank Turek
Bob Perry is a Christian apologetics writer, teacher, and speaker who blogs about Christianity and the culture at truehorizon.org. He is a Contributing Writer for the Christian Research Journal and has also been published in Touchstone, and Salvo. Bob is a professional aviator with 37 years of military and commercial flying experience. He has a B.S., Aerospace Engineering from the U. S. Naval Academy, and an M.A., Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He has been married to his high school sweetheart since 1985. They have five grown sons.