Note to Readers: I have been requested by several friends and readers to resume posting on my blog in Open Salon. However, I find it virtually impossible to access that web site these days. In addition, what I have time to write these days are sermons. And so, I am posting here my Christmas message to the members of the Baltic Parish here in Ohio, where I am now serving as Interim Pastor. As I approach my 74th birthday anniversary on the 28th of this month I have much to be thankful for: including sufficient relief from the pains of my erythromelalgia to be able to continue serving God in in the ministry. My wife, Sue, and I wish you the most blessed Christmas and pray that you be blessed abundantly in the coming year.
What is the total meaning of Christmas? That is a question that can cause real conflict in us if we just think about it. That is because there is the meaning of Christmas most of us grew up seeing portrayed in the society around us; and there is the meaning that the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible portray; and, finally, there is the total meaning of Christmas that we, as Christians, know, but really don’t want to think about very much. And, ironically, we especially don’t want to think about that third meaning at Christmas time! And so, both emotionally and intellectually, those three views of Christmas tug at us in strikingly different ways.
One part of me, a very sentimental and romantic part, a part supported by movie myths like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” and Hallmark ads on television, wants to approach a mystical manger and linger in adoration over a magical baby who will take all the pain away from the real world – if only long enough to allow Santa Claus and Toys R Us to fill the area around the Christmas tree with answers to every want we ever could be convinced we had – even if we knew not what we wanted.
Many of you might not notice, but, at heart, most of us are hopeless romantics, and so we actually really like the romantic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” idea of Christmas; because we grew up with it and it surrounds us every waking minute from well before Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. It is the Christmas that America loves.
And while it is deeply seated in the romantic myth of Christmas, it is also the one that feeds the economy so effectively that, even now, the Business Section of every newspaper in America has daily articles of projected doom or salvation for the entire country – all dependent on the sales figures in this crucial season.
Since we were born it has been ever so. And so, through good economies and bad we have always liked it. Why shouldn’t we like it? Happy people, pure white snow, merry times and mistletoe, and all the other trappings of a bright, joyous time. Part of us really loves that vision and desperately wishes it were always true. After all, it has been THE image of Christmas since most of us were born. It is familiar. It is very comfortable.
But there is another Christmas that is not quite so comfortable; not so commercial; not quite so myth-filled; not so sentimental or romantic. That Christmas, the Christian Christmas that focuses on a babe in a manger is also joyful and, in many ways, mystical. But, still, the Bible is clear that this is no magical baby. There is no mythical manger. This Christmas is real; even as in the background of the manger loom shepherds, wise men and angels.
But, we know that while that scene played out for a few hours, very few people even knew it happened. Even the wise men went home without telling Herod or anyone else what they saw. And Joseph and Mary and the baby soon left Bethlehem and fled into Egypt. And Herod, furious that the wise men did not tell him where the baby was to be found, ended up slaughtering all the little children in and around Bethlehem in hope of killing this tiny baby that one day might seek to take away his crown.
We don’t focus much on that post-Christmas scene because it is horrifying and does not fit the image we want to have of that wondrous night when Christ was born. And we hardly hear anything about Jesus for another thirty years or so. But still, in the Church, the focus at Christmas time is on the beauty and wonder of that one night of the birth of the Messiah. And we love that sharper focus, because it allows us to avoid, if only for a while, the truth that will come after.
And so that brings us to the third image of Christmas: the fuller, truer, image of Christmas for a Christian. There is room in that image for much joy at the beginning, much pain shortly thereafter, and a long period of normal life as Jesus grew from baby to boy to man and began his ministry. But ultimately that meaning of Christmas has to recognize, at least out of the corner of our eye, that there is a story we already know that is at the heart of the Incarnation: that the babe in the manger did, as on of our beloved carols notes, “come for to die.”
And we, if only for a fleeting instant, have to recognize this third meaning of Christmas. Because it is not only in naive innocence that the Christian must approach the Incarnation of the Christ. Rather there must be wide-eyed recognition that no babe in any manger saved the world. The salvation of the world is the work of a man, a God-man to be sure, but of a man nevertheless; not of a babe in a manger.
So the Christian must, from time to time, look at the babe in the manger with full awareness of who he will grow up to be, and of what work our God will set him to do and of what will become of him. And our sentimentality must also admit the pathos, and our joy must be leavened by the reality of the work that lies ahead for this swaddled child.
In this view, of course, there is much room for the promises of peace, hope, love, and joy; and for great celebration of the coming of the Messiah into the world. There is room for laughter, and wonder and awe; for rejoicing and, most of all, for worship. For what could be both more awesome and more awful to contemplate than the fact that God so loved the world that He came into this creation of His in the form of a human baby for the simple, indescribable, purpose of saving us from ourselves?
And while I know that this is the real Christmas, I sometimes don’t like it nearly as much as the one offered to me by the culture or the one that focuses only on that one wondrous night of Christ’s birth. This third, broader Christian look at the meaning of Christmas is too complicated; it is too messy. It is full of hope; but also of pain and despair – it is all too real. And the grace that finds us searching our hearts to understand this Christmas is not a cheap grace at all; but a grace that comes at a great price. Yet, thanks be to God that the price has been paid for us – because we are incapable of paying for it ourselves.
And so, for me, and perhaps for many of you as well, the question still haunts: How do we approach Christmas? We all know the answer is not easy. Discipleship is never easy.
And it is in the light of that fact that I leave each one of you with my Christmas wish: that you and I, we together, may come to know and live the true meaning of Christmas: the wonder and joy of the night of Christ’s birth, and yet also be aware of the awful reality that must yet come as that child becomes a man.
May we celebrate the beginning of the story with the true joy that comes only from knowing the whole story. Because, in the end there is resurrection and salvation for all who believe! What begins in a manger moves to a Cross – but it ends in Easter! And that is Christmas enough for all of us.
May God pour out abundant blessings on each of you this Holy Season, and may the God of Love who thought enough of us to send His only Son to be our redemption be with you and bless you and yours in the year to come.
May the Peace of Christ be with you all.