I set my radio to 105.1 FM every Thanksgiving day. They, like a host of other stations across the nation, have committed to play Christmas music non-stop from early November through Christmas day. In all reality, it is just one day of music programming that is repeated everyday throughout the holidays. But I’m a sap for Christmas nostalgia, so I tune in, everyday, for the same lot of songs played the day before.
What I didn’t really expect to hear everyday is Bette Midler’s interpretation of the ’80s song “From a Distance.” It’s hard to imagine lyrics more antithetical to the Christmas narrative. The song paints the picture of a God who is distant from us in every way.
From his perspective, according to the song, everything is in perfect harmony. If that is God’s view of humanity, then he must see us from a great distance indeed. And his eyesight must be myopic. Did he not see what happened in Newton, Connecticut? Only a nearly blind deity could consider such a massacre to be a part of some harmonious tapestry. What about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? What kind of God would think these things are beautiful?
“From a Distance” could not be any further from the truth of the birth of Christ.
The story of Christmas is bloody and dark and scary. It’s a narrative of a sin saturated and fallen cosmos in need of divine intervention. Bethlehem’s baby was born under the shadowy reign of death’s curse and Satan’s rule. But we’ve so sterilized the Advent that “little baby Jesus, meek and mild” is seen only in an ornamental light. This little baby was the true light of the world, indeed — shining, piercing, trumpeting through the fog of humanity — pointing us upward.
He was not watching from a distance. The story of Christmas is that God came close. Close enough to walk our paths, feel our pains, and carry our sorrows. People could look to Jesus and see man as he was always meant to be. Compassionate, peaceful and calm, yet filled with a righteous zeal for true justice. Our longing for an authentic hero was fully realized in him.
I’m reminded of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, or the superman. He believed that humanity eventually would produce an “over-man” who would transcend traditional values, religion and morality. There have been as many cultural expressions of this idea as there have been arguments over what exactly Nietzsche meant.
The most famous example is found in Jerry Siegel’s creation of the popular comic book character Superman. The “Man of Steel” is due, in part, to inspiration from Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. This helps explain why Superman was originally a villain with advanced mental powers who wanted worldwide domination (see graphic “The Reign of the Super Man”). Since Superman is the invention of a Jewish teenager (Siegel) living in the early 1930s — it’s not difficult to connect the dots with historical figures who fit this motif. But fate, as it seems, would later present the cape clad figure in a more heroic light.
The original vision had to be altered in order to achieve mass appeal. Superman had to be turned into a savior before he would gain international popularity.
But that’s not the case with Jesus. We don’t need to change the storyline. He didn’t watch us from a distance. He laid his glory down, took on flesh, and entered this unraveling planet to offer something we’ve always dreamed of: a real life hero.
He stood in our place as our substitute before the God we’ve offended in more ways than we can recount, and he bore the full weight of our most deserved judgment. The penalty of our sin was death, and he drank every drop from the cold cup of this curse. And the man we now remember most frequently as a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, coughed out his last breath while offering forgiveness for his executors. And three days later the eastern horizon exploded with hues of Easter hope testifying to his bodily resurrection.
No, he didn’t watch from a distance. He came close enough to the fire to be burned. And he still bears the scars. His nail pierced hands are extended to all who long for a hero. He entered our darkness so that we can walk in his light.
This is Christmas: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. This is really good news for a fallen world. “Joy to the world!” penned Isaac Watts, “the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”