Luke 1:26-38 II Peter 1:12-19
One of the constant phrases repeated on radio and TV talk shows these days is “We want to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas”, followed by words such as: “Don’t you just hate all this commercialism. We want to celebrate Christmas the way it ought to be.” And my ears perk up. I live in hope. Someone is going to point us back to the Ancient Christmas Account. Then the voices go on to describe Christmas, quote ” the way it should be” end quote. And I find myself listening in on the sounds of some modern myths about this festive season.
The Modern Day Myths.
I understand fully the distaste for the modern version of Christmas, packaged by slick advertising companies in their commercial campaigns against the unwary public. Many of us feel, more bombarded at this time of the year than any other. For many it is stress time with a capital S. We get exhausted, spending the rag ends of our working days cruising the shopping malls looking for just the right gift. I understand the woman who prayed “Forgive us our Christmasses as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
But after lamenting the chaos of Christmas, these same voices begin to describe what they call “the real meaning of Christmas.” And I hear things that sound so good, that I am prone to believe them. Then I catch myself, and say “I think not.” What are the new myths that are being announced?
“Christmas is for children”.
The first one is, “Christmas is for Children.” Sounds wonderful. Who could fight it? Let the kids have their day filled with toys, and candies and their favourite foods. And anyone who would gainsay that is just one more Grinch who plans to steal Christmas from the mouths of little ones.
“Christmas is for families.”
There is a second myth out there. This says, “Christmas is for families.” Christmas is for gathering the families together who have been scattered throughout the year. The transportation industry has every plane, train and bus filled with passengers going home for the holidays. We gather in the homes of parents or brothers and sisters or the homes of our grown up children, and for a day at least forget the differences that divide us, and we celebrate the family being together, just like the old days when we were kids.
“Christmas is for memories”
There is a third myth abroad in our world. Christmas is for wandering down memory lane to those wonderful Christmas Dinners with turkey and all the trimmings that mom used to fix. We get to go back to a “Currier and Ives” winter wonderland and live out a Charles Dickens kind of Christmas, with simple gifts under simple trees celebrated by simple folk. It is a time to listen to Perry Como Specials and sing nostalgic music. Christmas is a time to stroll down memory lane to a world we either used to live in, or wish we had.
“We want a Traditional Christmas”
There is a fourth myth that our culture offers us. It is called “a Traditional Christmas.” But the traditions have changed. In the old days the characters of Christmas were angels and wisemen, Mary & Joseph, Herod and Inn keepers. They were the furnishings of traditional stories with an occasional addition of the stories of saints like St. Nicholas or Good King Wenceslas.
But now the new traditional Christmas is dominated by major characters such as: Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the reindeer, a plump and Jolly Santa Claus who is no saint. The new villains by the way are not Herods and Innkeepers. They are the Grinch and Scrooge. The new traditional Christmas involves watching our favourite re-runs of Miracle on 34th street,” and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Jimmy Stewart in “Its a Wonderful Life”, and others like them. We want a “Traditional Christmas”.
A Minor Retraction
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I think Christmas needs to be a wonderful time for children and for families. It is nice to wander down memory lane. I don’t have a problem with Jolly Old St. Nicholas or the Grinch or walking in a winter wonderland. As supplementary stories they are fine. Who doesn’t enjoy some of the Christmas stories that have become part of modern fare.
The thing that causes me to pause is that the “real Christmas” has been displaced in our culture by very different versions of the story. The new versions are sugar and spice and all things nice. They are sentimental stories that make the toughest of us wipe our eyes.
But, I would like at least equal time for telling the story straight. The true story of Christmas is a story with iron in it. It is a story with some sharp edges. It is a story that is hardly a safe and sentimental one. On this Sunday morning before Christmas let me remind us of the major ingredients of the real story. Several ancient realities need to be placed alongside our modern mythologies.
The Giver in the original story is God Himself.
The first reality about that first Christmas is that God is the Giver in the story. It wasn’t St. Nicholas, or Mom and Dad. “God so loved the world that HE gave”.
The real story is about God’s gift to us, not about our gifts to one another. There are other gift givers of course in the story. Wisemen from afar came bearing gifts as part of their act of worship. But they were gifts of gratitude back to God, the Primary Giver, not passing out gifts to each other. The giving was more “vertical” and less “horizontal.” It was God giving to us, and our giving back to Him.
The Gift was Himself in His Son.
There is another feature about that first Christmas Day. God did not give gifts merely from the abundance of his possessions. He gave himself. He gave Himself in His son. He gave the most costly gift he could have given. He gave up himself. Placed himself at our disposal, knowing that we were people prone to violence and selfishness. He surrendered himself to us, which led to a life of poverty and constant misunderstanding, and finally to a very difficult death. He withheld nothing of himself from us. The Christmas story tells us that there is nothing that God would not do for us, to get out attention and gain our affection.
The Tough reality
But there is further element in the original Christmas account. I mentioned that there are sharp edges to the real story. In fact, it is so real, it hurts.
- It is a story that includes the social shame faced by a young girl and how her fiancé almost asked for a divorce before the wedding ceremony had been held.
- It includes a long journey of a pregnant couple seeking a safe place to have the baby, who came sooner than anticipated and caught them unprepared.
- The real story tells us that the Holiday Inn was fully booked, and the baby was born in the parking garage behind the hotel.
- The Original story includes a prophesy that a sword would pierce the very heart of the young virgin mother.
- It is the story of Herod the evil one who massacres children on a whim.
- It is the story of refugees fleeing in the night to a strange country, fearing detection and not daring to come home.
- The story of the birth of this baby has iron in it too. Iron spikes through hands and feet and an iron spear into the heart come in at the close of the story, but they are written into the script from the very beginnings of the story.
- This is not a Children’s story. It is a story for adult minds.
Christmas deals with the Sin Question.
There is another aspect in the old story. Christmas was never intended to be a time for cooing over a baby in swaddling clothes. It was never meant to be a story filled with romance. It is a story that comes face to face with the question of human evil and our sinfulness. It is the story of how God responded to the harsh reality of human sin, and the dark side of human nature, by offering the costliest of antidotes.
The baby is to be given a name. “Call his name Jesus” are the instructions. Why Jesus? It is the same name as Joshua, the great Hebrew leader who brought Israel into her promised land. It means “God saves.” But the Angel messenger wants the meaning clarified. “Call his name Jesus – for he shall save his people – from their sins.”
He was not coming to save us from tough circumstances. He came to share those kind of circumstances alongside of us.
He was not coming to save us from economic penury. He shared our poverty for all of his 30 plus years.
But he did come to grant to us forgiveness for our sins and freedom from our compulsion to sin. And that is the heart of the Christmas message! That is the reason for the season!
In fact, this truth is lodged in the name for the season we celebrate Christmas comes from two words. “Christ” and “Mass”. The word “mass” is another name for the Service of Holy Communion, where forgiveness of ours sins is received and the real presence of the ever-living Christ is re-experienced. For that is the heart of the Christmas message! That is the reason for the season! Someone has come to save us from our worst selves.
That sounds like reason for a celebration!