A blessed Christmas to all … and may the grace of this holy season so infuse our days, that we truly come to know God who is in our midst, and that we welcome a generous share of God’s own life, which invites us to renewal and transformation.
I have been thinking lately how Christmas is such an odd holiday. For starters, it is essentially a birthday celebration that has continued well past the birthday celebrant’s earthly lifetime. Now I occasionally notice on Facebook how people will remember a departed loved one on their birthday, so it has been done before. But when departed loved ones are remembered on their birthday, there is a very noticeable tinge of loss. Cheerful greetings and presents are not exchanged. Songs of merriment do not fill the air. Festive dinners are not held. Instead, these remembrances are more sedate and somber by comparison. And the celebratory nature of the event is clearly altered by the noticeable absence of the birthday celebrant. Actually there are two other births that we celebrate in the church’s liturgical calendar, but our celebrations on these dates do not look anything like Christmas, and neither do they look like remembrances of people long departed. We celebrate the birth of Mary, mother of God, on September 8, exactly 9 months after the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. And we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist on June 24, exactly six months away from Christmas, around the time of the summer solstice. The gospel tells us that when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, he also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child and in her sixth month. So Mary went and stayed with Elizabeth for about three months until the birth of John. That puts the birth of her own Son about six months from that of Elizabeth’s son. And there is another reference in the gospel, when John the Baptist spoke to his own disciples before being thrown in jail by Herod. He let them know without a doubt that he himself was not the Messiah. Like the best man at a wedding, he rejoiced for his friend the bridegroom whose coming he foretold. Now that the bridegroom had made his appearance in Israel, his joy was complete. “He must increase, while I must decrease,” said John. At this time of year, around the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the daylight begins to gradually increase, while around the time of the summer solstice and the birth of John the Baptist, the daylight begins to decrease, a subtle reference to John’s own testimony about Jesus.
When we celebrate birthdays, we observe an actual historical event that took place once and will never take place again. The occasion of a birth is always reasonable cause for rejoicing, but not likely for the majority of people who have no connection with the child or the child’s immediate family. These days, there are people and nations who celebrate Christmas who have little regard for the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Christmas for them is just a commercial or social holiday, with feasting and merriment devoid of connection with Jesus Christ. They rejoice because they don’t want to be left out, but their rejoicing has nothing to do with the mystery of the child of Bethlehem.
With the passing of each year, a child’s circle of friends will expand, and a few more than the previous year might partake of the festivities. As well with each passing year we become aware of changes in a person’s physical, intellectual, and emotional maturity. Some people might needlessly fixate on external age markers. But we do not keep reminding them of their infancy by recalling the circumstances that accompanied their birth. It is precisely because people are older and wiser and more accomplished that we mark their birthday. And although we count the years completed, we also look to the year ahead and even greater maturity and success. When we celebrate Christmas, we keep returning to that very first Christmas, with Mary and Joseph traveling by donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the time of the census in search of room for the night. They end up where animals are sheltered, and there Mary’s child is born. There are angels that appear to shepherds in the fields, and wise men from the east in search of a newborn king. But to these we have added other things through the years: gift-giving and carol-singing, glittering lights and indoor vegetation, a festive dinner and a grand worship service, the expectation of economic prosperity, a jolly old elf in a red suit with his bag of toys, and an expansive atmosphere of cheer and goodwill.
But Christmas is more than a seasonal celebration of some long past event. It is more than an opportunity for the economy to bounce back. It is more than a break from the monotony of winter so we can give cheerfully wrapped presents and exchange seasonally appropriate and non-offensive greetings while ignoring the harsher realities of life like poverty and hunger and loneliness even just for a day or two. Christmas is rather an invitation to hope because God has intervened in human history, and we are no longer on our own. We call to mind the birth of a child in some obscure village in the Middle East 20 centuries ago because it is no ordinary event. This child is the fulfillment of a promise from ages past, come to remind us of a God who made us and who loves us dearly, come to change the course of human history with his teaching, his way of life, and his death on a cross, come to deliver us from our bondage to sin and death. Perhaps we would rather not pause and think too deeply of the mystery that is the foundation of this festive season. But the thing about living an unexamined life is that it often leaves us empty inside and not really knowing true happiness and fulfillment. Eventually all the presents will be unwrapped and the shiny paper discarded. We will grow weary of the seasonal music and the twinkling lights will fade away. We will return to old resentments and attitudes, to ignoring neighbors in need, and to welcoming back sin and darkness our old friends. And when the credit card bills come due, we will be lamenting our seasonal frivolous spending and lack of restraint. There has got to be something more to Christmas than most of what we see around us.
A child is asleep in a manger while his parents keep close watch. The Word of God made flesh has become one of us to free us from sin and death. And a cross looms on the horizon to remind us of an even greater mystery that God wishes to reveal on our behalf. This child has come to set us free. But we need to acknowledge first our need for freedom. Brightly wrapped presents will not set us free, not cheerful songs nor festive meals. But if we come to know the freedom he brings, most everything else will finally make sense … even the presents, the carols and the festive meal. “Today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.” God wishes to share his life with us. Come, let us adore him.