(A little out of sequence but still in the season…)
Do you ever wonder, as I do, what people have in mind when they write, “I wish you a merry Christmas”? If there’s any thought or intention behind the greeting at all (except to be in touch with a relative or a friend), I suspect that it refers mainly to family togetherness and feel-good gatherings. And that’s just fine. There should be more of such well-wishing and conviviality.
However, there’s so much more to the event, the event of Jesus’ birthday, and it has been all but smothered by the unbridled commercialism that blares out at us incessantly for months even before the season and the day arrive.
Now I’m not going to dampen this year’s Christmas with a rant against commercialism or materialism or any other ism. Rather, I intend only to remind us all that everything about Christmas had its start with, and is therefore rooted in, something that happened a little over 2000 years ago – but which received surprisingly little attention in the first few centuries that followed it. That was, of course, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem to parents whose names we know. But it took many generations for people to appreciate what an unprecedented influence he had had in the entire world ever since. It was at that point that they began to celebrate the birth with honor — a custom that endures – indeed, grows — in our time as well.
So, the tree and the garlands and the candy canes and the candles and the wreaths and the foods & drinks and the music both secular & sacred, and countless other symbols contributed by country after country over the past two millennia all have reference to, not only the birth, but the whole life of Jesus, including mainly his ministry of teaching & healing, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.
Here’s just one example, similar, I’m sure, to what most of you can describe from your own homes: In my living room, I place on a coffee table a nativity scene whose focus is the infant Jesus lying in a manger. Early Christian writers saw in that rough, wooden, makeshift crib a prophecy: they said that its wood foretold the wood of the cross on which Jesus would be crucified some thirty or so years later.
And so it is with virtually every item, every person we see in the nativity scene. Each is an unspoken word telling us the story of Emmanuel, “God with us,” especially in the person of Jesus.
Poets and artists and musicians are far better than philosophers and theologians at expressing our experiences with God, the Creative Spirit whom Jesus, above all, reveals to us. That is why the story of Jesus, especially the part having to do with his birth, is preserved for us chiefly through their art and their craft. We listen with undivided attention to those familiar accounts, appreciating both the underlying factual message they carry and also their exquisite, often fictional, literary beauty.
The child born that night later on dedicated his life and death to the cause of freedom for all God’s children; an end to slavery of all kinds; compassionate care of the poor and the needy; a just and equitable sharing of the abundant goods of the earth; and – empowering it all — a firm belief in the presence and the love of the One he called Father.
And once again there is good news: It has been documented that never before in human history have there been, as there are at this very moment, so many groups that exist for the sole purpose of helping the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden.
Of course I hope that your Christmas and mine will be happy and peaceful and full of hope and memories to last for the rest of our lives. And I pray that every moment of it, each with its particular color and beauty and warm love, will cause us to think, “This is how Jesus wants it to be – for everyone – forever.”