Christmas Thoughts, 2013: “Arrivals are Great, But Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow”

Which is more impressive to you? That Jesus came to earth? Or that Jesus left heaven?

I post these thoughts on Christmas Day, 2013, not because I assume anyone is reading blogs this day. Rather, this is a profitable exercise for me on this momentous day.

Actually, these ideas are a fine-tuning and polishing of a newsletter that my wife and I sent out two months ago to our mailing list. Perhaps you are on that list, in which case you can either choose to ignore this posting or act on your curiosity to see if I actually improved the original writing.

The idea becomes increasing inescapable to me that God left his idyllic residence, crossing cultural barriers to lose his life in an alien environment of chaos and misery, subjecting himself to the workings of a foreign culture while bringing an alien message, ultimately to give up everything for…what…what shall we call it? His mission?

Departures can often be more momentous than arrivals, I say.

In my book, “Night Shift,” I recount an experience I had in late May of 1992. My oldest son, Dan, had spent his first year out of high school aimlessly trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. After a year of this, he decided to enlist in the US Navy. I felt that this was a good move for him, but it was an emotionally difficult thing for me to say goodbye to him.

His departure was sandwiched between two painful experiences for me. In early May I had run over my foot with our lawnmower. A couple of weeks after Dan left, our beautiful black Labrador was struck and killed by a truck in front of our house. Coming between those two events, Dan’s departure is etched deeply into my consciousness by the emotional stress of that entire time period.

When I think of Dan’s time in the Navy, I have no clear memory of the events surrounding his coming home after his 6-year stint. But everything about his departure is clearly carved into my memory. I remember limping over to him on my crutches, fighting back tears, hugging him, saying an emotional goodbye. Departures are tough, especially when they occur in a context of stress and life’s ubiquitous pressures.

It is in this way that I think of Jesus at this time of year. Obviously we have a lot of narrative information in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 concerning Jesus’ birth- arrival. But what about his departure from heaven? We need to dig a little deeper for that. Oh, it’s there, but we need to seriously search for it. You see, it is not the Messiah’s arrival on earth, as amazing as that is, that stirs my thoughts this Christmas Day as much as it is his departure. I wonder about that departure from heaven. Could it possibly have been as amazing as his arrival on earth?

After all, it is what Jesus left that makes his coming so stunning. Earlier this month, Kathy and I left Baltimore for Florida. There was little that was remarkable about that. We left a cold climate for sunny climes, glorious days, and lovely beaches. No crowds will assemble at the airport to give us teary hugs and marvel at our sacrifice. But if we were to sell all and relocate to, say Calcutta, to work among the poor, diseased, and hopeless, the nature of our departure might become a salutary event worth noting.

If Jesus’ life is characterized by anything – more than his good works, more than his great teaching, more than his exemplary life – it is that in concert with the Spirit and his Father he left a place of perfection to immerse himself in a deeply damaged world. I see the clues that speak of the importance of Jesus’ departure from heaven.

First, in the Gospels, there are more occurrences of verbs depicting Jesus being “sent” than words that describe his “arriving”. In other words, the perspective of “the sender” (his Father and the Holy Spirit) seems to figure quite prominently in Jesus’ thinking and in the vocabulary of those who first told us his story.

Second, we have statements that speak of events before creation (cf. Matthew 13:34; John 17:5, 24; Ephesians 1:4; I Peter 1:20) that suggest some pretty big doings were going on. This suggests to me that we would do well to give more thought to what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and angels!) were up to prior to creation.

If there were, in eternity past, a plethora of conversations surrounding Jesus’ departure from heaven concerning what Jesus would do in space and time, I would expect that the Trinity would be deeply engaged in those dialogues and that angels’ jaws would drop in shock at the imminent departure of the King.

In this regard, may I recommend a brief video clip that I think creatively and accurately gives a fresh perspective on Jesus’ departure to earth as an infant.

Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY

Finally, I love the endearing statements that link Jesus and the Father in an intimate relationship. These declarations may take the form of Jesus’ own words about his relationship with his Father. Or they may appear in comments made by other writers, such as the author of Hebrews, who describes Jesus as being “the radiance of his Father’s glory and the exact representation of his Father’s nature…” (Heb. 1:3).

My pain over my son’s departure to the Navy is understandable and shared by many. But Jesus leaving heaven, now that’s taking “parting is such sweet sorrow” to a whole new level.

Because we are apt to view the Bible through the lens of our own needs and wants, we may tend to emphasize Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem (especially at this time of year) over his departure from his throne in heaven. After all, we needed him to come!

But if we see this season through the eyes of God, perhaps our hearts will be stirred to think more of what Jesus “left” than that to which he “came.” This season think of heaven, not the one you hope to go to, but the one Jesus left. Think of departures, not Jesus’ departure to heaven after his resurrection, but his abandonment of the place of idyllic glory to come into this world. Think of Jesus, not as poor, but “though he were rich…” (II Cor. 8:9).