The magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is a familiar part of the Christmas story. What happens next is less familiar. Warning signs start popping up. They are a part of the story that is often overlooked.
Christmas is a story rooted in words and rebellion. Before time existed, Lucifer led a rebellion against God. It broke out with a preposterous claim that broke the meaningful connection between words and reality: “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa.14:13-14). Words are supposed to properly define reality but Lucifer’s words were whacked out. So a war ensued. The heavenly hosts won. Lucifer and his legions lost and were cast to the earth.
This explains why the earth is first described as “formless and void” (Gen.1:2), meaning undifferentiated mass. The earth was nothing—undifferentiated—yet something—mass. If this confuses you, join the club. “Formless and void” describes disordered reality with ominous overtones of judgment.1 Lucifer is lurking in the bushes.
Creation is the story of God speaking, ordering the disorder and making it good. Made in the image of God, Adam speaks, naming the animals (Gen.2:19-20). Adam connects words with reality because he has “insight into the natures of the various creatures,” writes Dallas Willard.2 So does Lucifer, but his game plan is exactly opposite of Adam’s. His aim is to break the meaningful connection between words and reality. This happens in the Garden when Adam and Eve failed to identify the serpent as Lucifer. The couple fell. God however promised to one day rectify the situation.
That day dawned with Christmas. After the birth of Christ, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem and asked Herod for directions to the baby, the King of the Jews. Herod pointed them toward Bethlehem but secretly asked they report back on the baby’s exact whereabouts. The magi found the Christ child, presented to him their gifts, but were then “warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod” (Mt. 2:12). An angel also appeared to Joseph, warning him to flee to Egypt, escaping from Herod (2:13). When Herod learned the magi had given him the slip, he was enraged and slaughtered all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under.
The Christmas story has warning signs that are warranted when we read Revelation 12. For starters, we learn that Herod was the dupe of the devil. The Christmas story is told as a woman about to give birth. A dragon is crouching before her, ready to crush the newborn. The dragon is identified as Lucifer, or the devil (Rev.20:2). The woman gives birth and the family flees to Egypt, getting past the watchful dragon. Lucifer is left seething at the child. The story closes with a warning—Lucifer declares war on Christ’s followers. The dragon aims to destroy the church.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, an instructor of religion in the 4th century A.D., regularly warned his students: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass by. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” Flannery O’Connor and C. S. Lewis took this warning seriously, probably because they worked with words. They felt it important to identify the dragon.
Flannery O’Connor was a novelist in the 1950s and 60s. She defined her work as “the accurate naming of the things of God.”3 O’Connor identified the dragon of her day as modern writers, including Christians, who pictured life as a bucolic fairytale. They were unwittingly severing the meaningful connection between words and the “reality of the present situation.” O’Connor believed these writers had forgotten that we live in a fallen world that is often forgetful of our capacity to do heinous things. So she wrote dark novels with sinister characters, many of them Christians, with the hope that they would help readers in “the identification of this dragon.”4
C. S. Lewis was a contemporary of O’Connor who worked as an academician. He identified the dragon as the modern world’s loss of moral imagination. Scientism for example was responsible for breaking the meaningful connection between words and reality. It was actually a fantasy, a mistaken idea that facts are the sole province of truth while values (i.e., religions) are nothing more than matters of taste. Lewis knew this was absurd, so he wrote fantasy literature to “steal past those watchful dragons.”5
These Christ followers remind us that Christmas included warning signs to alert Christians to steal past the dragons. But we have to first identify them. This can prove difficult for religious institutions, since the assumption is that everything we say is meaningfully connected to reality. But like everyone else, Christians can be duped. A wise believer like St. Cyril recognized this. Shrewd Christians such as O’Connor and Lewis would say the Bible has a slightly different take on Christmas than the bucolic scene displayed in most nativity sets. They might recommend adding a dragon figurine to remind us that Lucifer is lurking in the bushes. A little statuette of Lucifer would serve as a warning sign, alerting believers to identify the dragon, wherever he may be found.
1 Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), p. 106.
2 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of Disciplines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 49.
3 Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1988), p. 128.?
4 O’Connor, Habit of Being, p. 126.
5 C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said,” in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1982), p. 12.