O Lord you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
There is something about Christmas that intensifies a spirit of perfectionism in me. It isn’t an inner perfectionism – about who I am, but an outer perfectionism – about how I appear. You might call it an external perfectionism, and at Christmas it reveals itself in my frustrated attempts to buy someone the perfect present (with a limited budget), to take the perfect Christmas card picture (with three wiggly kids and a dog), or to create the perfect light display on the front of our house (with year-old strands of lights already half-broken). Can you relate? Our external perfectionism may seem humorous and harmless, but over the years I’ve come to identify it as an annual enemy. Why? Because our external perfectionism blinds us from seeing the grace of the incarnation. We can’t see what’s real when we’re living in a land of make-believe.
When we consider the incarnation of Jesus Christ, His taking on human nature and life, there are many “how” and “so what” questions theologians and pastors cannot answer. But the Bible is clear on the “why” question: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” Jesus became like us to save us from our sins. The concept is familiar to our ears, but foreign to our hearts; it all seems backwards. Deep down we are convinced that we need to earn the privilege of God dwelling among us. So as we do with each other, we put our best foot forward before God, especially at Christmas.
A few months ago, I asked a group of older Christians in a retirement community what some of their favorite passages of the Bible were. Several people mentioned Psalm 139, which begins with these memorable words: “O Lord You have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it altogether (Psalm 139:1-4).” Do those words comfort you or intimidate you? I hope they do both! It’s comforting to remember that God knows where we are and what we are experiencing at every moment. But it’s intimidating to remember that God knows us completely; our every thought, action, and word. So like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we can put our best foot forward before God in a spirit of perfectionism, but it won’t matter. His knowledge of us is perfect; inside and out; past, present, and future; for better, and for worse. God knows we are not merely imperfect, but we are corrupt, unrighteous, and worthless (Psalm 14:1-3; Romans 3:10-12).
Despite knowing the depths of our sin, Jesus Christ came to earth. Or to put it in stronger terms, because of knowing the depths of our sin, Jesus Christ came to earth. The promise has come true, “Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness and shadow of death, on them has light dawned (Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16).” The incarnation is not earned or deserved; it is a gift of grace. This is the very connection John makes at the beginning of his Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:14, 16).”
To celebrate Christmas in its fullness, we do not need to hide our true condition and compensate with external perfectionism – from God or from each other. On the contrary, we need to lean into the reality of our sinfulness and our continued fight against sin – as individuals, as families, and as a community. Wouldn’t your celebration of Christmas be richer if Christmas cards and party conversations included more stories of rescue than accolades and travelogues?
In 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the first of two Christmases in a Nazi military prison called Tegel. To cheer him, his fiancé Maria brought him a Christmas tree, but it was so too big to fit in his cell so it was given to the guards. But rather than spoiling his celebration of Christmas, Bonhoeffer wrote that his circumstances actually helped him celebrate more fully: “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come (Letters and Papers from Prison).”
Rather than embracing a spirit of external perfectionism, we as Christians can embrace the reality of our personal trouble, poverty, and imperfection because we know the grace of the incarnation. Jesus Christ took on human nature and life because He knew the depths of our trouble, poverty, and imperfection. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!