[Below are the words I had planned on giving at my family’s Zoom Christmas Eve service this year. As the pandemic took a significant turn for the worse in the days leading up to Christmas, I felt the need to offer a gentler reflection at that service. But, I thought I’d share these words here in this space today in the hopes they were meant for someone.]
Over the past few years, I’ve come to love Christmas movies and stories. Are they silly? Yes. Are they cheesy? Yes. Does their general theology of “Miracles can happen if you just believe” traffic in the least productive kind of magical thinking? Absolutely. But there is something truly wonderful about them nonetheless, that can melt even the iciest Scrooge and make even the most jaded heart grow three sizes bigger. And as it happens, I think our culture’s secular ideas of Christmas are better in at least one major way than how many of us Christians celebrate it: They expect that Christmas will change us. We can “Keep the Christ in Christmas” and insist that “Jesus is the reason for the season” all we want, but if we aren’t just as passionate about what that actually means for our lives, then there isn’t much point, is there? If we are more concerned about that ‘what’ of Christmas than the ‘why’, then we’re missing the point just as much as anyone else. And so it’s this question — Why we commemorate Christmas, or what Jesus’ birth means — that I’d like to focus on today.
There are few symbols more powerful or more universal than the birth of a child as a sign of hope. What better reminder is there than a newborn that God isn’t finished with us and the world yet. What better symbol of hope for the future! We see this in the Christmas story. Every time I read the Christmas stories in the Gospels, I am amazed by how much happens surrounding the birth of Jesus. Astrologers from the East see something in the sky that causes them to drop everything and head to Jerusalem to investigate. An old woman named Elizabeth conceives a child and blesses God. Her husband, a priest named Zechariah, becomes a reluctant prophet. A teenager named Mary takes up the scandalous and dangerous demands of being pregnant outside of marriage. Her fiance Joseph receives messages from God in his dreams. A heavenly army appears to a group of outcast shepherds. And, two seniors, Anna and Simeon, see the fruition of their hopes and dreams and prophesy over the child. But for all of these people, the message is more than one of immediate hope for themselves; they are all convinced that this birth will change everything, for everyone. They understand that Christmas has work to do in the world.
For Mary, it means the overthrow of the powerful and lifting up of the poor (Luke 1.52-54).
For Zechariah, it means the the opening up of a new way of living, in holiness, righteousness, and peace (1.74, 79).
For the shepherds, it means the coming of a long-awaited national hero who would bring them in from the margins (2.10-11).
For Simeon, it means salvation, but also a moment of national crisis that will lead many to step up in faith, but also many to fall away (2.29-35).
For us, it means — well that’s the question, isn’t it?
Many of the things the characters in the Christmas story hoped for have still yet to be realized in practical terms. We still live in a world where the powerful and comfortable oppress the powerless and poor. We still live in a world that desperately needs that new way of living, in holiness, righteousness, and peace. We still live in a world where some people are pushed aside and don’t matter. We still live in a world in crisis, in which Jesus remains a stumbling block — even and especially for those who call ourselves ‘Christians’.
Christmas still has work to do in the world.
This doesn’t mean that Christmas failed. Far from it. It means that what God was doing in Jesus was always meant to be the beginning of something, not the end. The New Testament and Christian writings from the first centuries have a clear expectation that the Christians will participate in, appropriate, or be absorbed into Jesus’ mission. He is the vine, we are the branches. He is the firstfruits, we are the harvest. He is the Christ, we are ‘Christians,’ little christs. As one early Christian saying had it, ‘Everything he is by nature, we become by grace.’ We join with him in incarnating the presence of God in the world. We join with him in calling oppressive authorities to account. We join with him in feeding the hungry and tending to the sick. We join with him in proclaiming good news, in freeing captives, in making peace — not the tentative ceasefires we call peace in our world, but God’s true peace of whole and healed relationships, which we call shalom.
This is the true work of Christmas. This is the life Christmas calls us to incarnate in the world, to offer to the world in and through our bodies. This is the Kingdom of God in action.
I’ve spent Advent pondering the question,’When I wake up on Christmas morning, how will I be different?‘ If we, as Christians, believe that Christmas changed the world, how much more must it change us — our history, trajectory, and possibilities — too? These aren’t questions with easy answers. They only cause us to reflect and ask ourselves more questions. But they reinforce for us the fact that Christmas has work to do, in the world, and in us. And, I believe, they’re worth reflecting on once more today as we enter into the brave, new world that Christmas inaugurates.
I will leave off with some powerful words from the wonderful twentieth-century American theologian Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
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 among brothers,
To make music in the heart.*
*The Mood of Christmas, 23.