The Great Reversal
On our Christmas tree every year, we hang a specific angel ornament. It doesn’t really fit the style of the rest of our tree, but every year we reminisce about how the angel first arrived on our tree.
I was at a Christmas party at my last church, probably about 10 years ago. We were playing the game called “Dirty Santa” or “White Elephant,” where players compete to get a Christmas present that they want. A selection of wrapped gifts is laid out, and each person has the choice to either unwrap a Christmas present, or to "steal" another person’s gift that they have already opened. If a person’s gift is stolen, they in turn have the choice to either choose another wrapped gift to open or they can steal from another player. If you’ve played before, you know that it can be a wild game!
This was a staff Christmas party, so both ministers and their families were there. A boy of about 7 years old who had unwrapped a toy truck, and he was so excited about it. He couldn’t wait for the game to end so that he could play with that truck. But one of our other staff members “stole” the toy truck from him, thinking that the boy would probably end up with another toy at some point. But when the boy unwrapped a new gift he found…the boring angel ornament.
My turn was next. Of course there was only one logical thing to do. I used my turn to “steal” the truck back from the other staff member. Then as a private transaction, I offered to trade my newly acquired toy truck for the little boy’s angel—and he happily agreed! There was laughing and cheering all around. Now that angel ornament hangs on our tree every year as a reminder of that topsy-turvy Christmas game.
Dirty Santa is a game that is all about reversals. Until the game ends, you never know which gift you will walk away with. No one is safe, and until the last turn of the game you don’t know who will come out on top—anyone can see their fortunes reversed at any time. In that way, it’s quite similar to the message of Christmas. The seventeenth century mystic Angelus Silesius says it this way:
All things are now reversed:
The castle is the cave,
The crib becomes the throne,
The night brings forth the day,
The Virgin bears a Child:
Reflect, O Man, and say,
That heart and mind must surely be
Reversed in every way.
The story of Christmas is the beginning of the great reversal. A child born in obscurity turns out to be the king of the universe. That child grows into a man who announces that the ones who are on top in this world will one day be last, and the ones who are last now will one day be first. And that man will reveal that a humiliating death is actually the doorway to everlasting life.
We celebrate the birth of a king who came to turn upside down our notions of success, failure, importance, and morality. Take some time this advent to see how well your life aligns with Jesus’ notion of a life well-lived. What do you need to turn around in your heart and mind this Christmas, to follow that king of reversals?