- Chapel of St John the Divine
- December 25, 2017
- 09:00 AM
Christmas Day 2017
Santa had an accident. Christmas is cancelled!
That was a joke posted on Facebook the other day.
It made me sad because I know lots of folks for whom Christmas is ONLY about Santa.
And not just little kids.
They were among the ones out on icy roads Saturday. They were among the ones crowding the stores.
The best bargain makes the best Christmas.
There are other posts on Facebook telling us that if we want to keep Christ in Christmas we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and the poor.
Be Christ to the world.
And everywhere there are decorations. Some are displays that light up the whole neighborhood. Flying reindeer, blinking trees.
And there are crèches. Some are reverent and even prayerful. Others, at least on line, are cute and silly. Some are just inappropriate.
Some part of this says Christmas to someone.
Why do we have so many different ideas about Christmas?
I recently found a wonderful little book called “4000 Years of Christmas.” Yes, 4000 years!
This dark time of the year has long been a time for revelry. Ancient customs sought to bring back the light and keep the evil ones locked in darkness.
So they had special celebrations to light up the nights, and keep the fear of darkness away.
From Mesopotamia and Persia to the north country where the winter is even darker there were traditions to remind folks that the light would be back.
These celebrations were in the northern hemisphere, so they took place this time of year.
The earliest Christians did not care when Jesus was born. They celebrated and rejoiced in his resurrection. Easter was their big celebration.
In the fourth century the church became legal and safe, and things changed.
Bishops met in 325 and wrote the Nicene Creed (it’s been amended since) and the church began to make itself the church.
At this time ideas about Jesus began to change. Was he only divine? Was he only human?
If he was only divine he couldn’t possibly have been born as a human. If he was only human at birth….
We hear the bishops’ answer to that in the Creed, “begotten, not made…..incarnate from the Virgin Mary.”
Jesus was born as a human, and he was born divine. Therefore, he must have had a birthday!
December 25 was the midst of the winter celebrations in Rome and beyond.
By about 350 the western church (the church centered in Rome) adopted December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, and it became Christmas for most of the church.
The Orthodox churches—the churches of the east—have always celebrated Christmas on January 6, the date we call Epiphany.
Whatever the date, the tradition of lights and partying continued.
The early celebrations were 12 days long, and so our Christmas season lasts for 12 days, too.
The early traditions included giving gifts of various kinds. Perhaps the gifts of the Wise Men were part of that custom.
The similar old traditions show that, no matter what we call our God, we are all connected.
Customs continue over time, even though we may not know why we do them. Customs change with time, too. The church is the only place where Christmastide lasts until Jan. 6.
Everywhere else it will soon be “after Christmas.” Time to move on to a New Year, and Valentines Day.
Those bare facts may explain a bit about our celebration of Christmas, but there is so much more that defies simple explanation.
All families have stories they tell over and over to remind themselves who they are. We tell the stories about Jesus over and over.
In churches everywhere the Christmas story is told in words and in pageants. These pageants are a wonderful, wonder-filled, way for children to get to know the story of our Savior’s birth.
The barn, the manger, the animals, the angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the baby—all this is a sweet start to the story.
The rest of the story isn’t so sweet.
As we follow Jesus through the gospels we see the power of God working through him.
We see Mary and Joseph say yes to God and take on a life that put them in danger, and perhaps on the outside of their community.
We see this baby, called “tender and mild,” become a force for God’s mercy and justice. We see him defy authority, break cultural laws.
We see him touching the untouchable. We see him with those called outcasts and sinners. We see him turn his back on the structures of power so that he can lead them into God’s kingdom.
Santa and the crèche are popular because they give us easy ways to celebrate Christmas.
They make sense for children.
For those of us who are no longer children God offers us a different story. Howard Thurman gives us the story of God’s kingdom this way:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, To bring peace to others,
And to make music in the heart.”
So enjoy the Christmas parties and presents, the time with friends and family.
Then go out and spread God’s kingdom for the rest of the year.