Last weekend, I joined with 4500 other individuals in watching the first ever virtual Christmas Prism from the Greatbatch School of Houghton College. Like the 13 Christmas Prisms before it, it welcomed us into Christmas, invited us to sing with the musicians some of the familiar carols, and introduced us to new music and poetry of Christmas from many times and places. It reminded us once again that Christmas is not the invention of the modern marketplace but the story of God exchanging the glory of Heaven for the swaddling clothes of Bethlehem. Unlike the previous 13 Prisms, Prism 2020 did not take place on the stage of Wesley Chapel amid a sea of Christmas color and décor designed especially for the occasion. This year’s Prism took place all over campus in the recording studio, on the lawn, in the atrium of the Fine Arts Center. It was in preparation all semester. It was a costly gift from the students and faculty of the School of Music as they worked all semester in less-than-ideal conditions of masking and social distancing to create beauty amid the stark and alienating circumstances of the pandemic. In doing so, they invited us to exchange our own sadness and weariness for the beauty of the Good News that God has come to be among us.
Exchange is a familiar part of our Christmas vocabulary. We exchange names at the office for white elephant parties. We exchange names in the family to enable our budget to accommodate growing networks of nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-children. We exchange gifts either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, depending on our family traditions. And, at least up until gift cards became a favorite choice under the tree, we joined the hordes of shoppers on December 26, rushing to exchange the gifts that did not fit or that were not the right color or, for whatever reason, we preferred not to keep.
But Christmas also reminds us of the motif of exchange that is woven through the fabric of the universe—and that was already a familiar pattern of God’s dealing with humanity long before the great exchange that we celebrate at Christmas. Throughout the books of the prophets, we read of God yearning to have his people exchange their idols of wood, silver and gold for a God who could actually do something for them. In Isaiah 35:10, we read of the day when those whom God has rescued will “enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). Sighing and sorrow will be exchanged for gladness and joy. Later in the same book, we read in chapter 61 of the “year of the Lord’s favor” when God will “bestow…a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of heaviness.” In Luke 4, this is the passage that our Lord, the Baby of Bethlehem, read to the people of Nazareth, announcing to them that the Great Exchange was happening right in front of them.
God has come in Jesus Christ to invite us to exchange our sadness for joy, our sorrow for gladness, and the pain and starkness of our lives for the beauty of the Kingdom. But so far at least, God has required that we offer up our sadness, our sorrow, our “spirit of heaviness” as part of the exchange. He does not force us to receive the gifts that God is so ready to bestow. I used to puzzle over why Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethesda if he wanted to be made well. As I have grown up, I understand better that we as humans can become so accustomed to and even comfortable with the brokenness in our lives that we prefer the predictable to anything that might ask of us a disruption.
And the Exchange on offer at Christmas is unlike anything we could have imagined or fully prepared for. Like the 2020 Prism, the beauty is born out of the very circumstances of this inconvenient and disruptive season of COVID-19 and made all the more powerful and even a bit jarring because of the context.
As we prepare during this third week of Advent 2020, may we be open to the opportunities for exchange that will present themselves before us each day—and ultimately be prepared to participate in the Great and Mysterious Exchange of Christmas where the Son of God became like us that we might be restored to our true identity as Sons and Daughters of our Heavenly Father.
Peace and Joy to you as we celebrate the Great Cosmic Exchange that we know as Christmas.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976