by Pastor Doug Kings
Christmas has become a strange holiday. No one is quite sure when it starts or ends, no one is really sure what it is about, and no one is sure how it is supposed to be observed or experienced. But as the song says, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Many may be surprised to know the word comes from “Christ’s mass,” referring to the worship service celebrating the birth of Jesus. (Latin languages use some variation of the word “nativity”, which means birth.) It’s old news that Christians are supposed to be dismayed at the “commercialization” of Christmas (though “secularization” is probably a more accurate term). “Put Christ back in Christmas” is a popular bumper sticker expressing that sentiment. Frankly, I’m not sure what that means or what doing so would look like.
The observance of Christmas has a long history which bears little resemblance to Christmas today. Most, including many Protestants, do not realize Christmas is one part of an annual liturgical cycle or calendar. Pulling it out of that context is already a distortion of its intended purpose. The calendar’s seasons and holy days together tell the Christ story. Lifting out one day and ignoring the rest only makes for confusion.
Like its festival cousin Easter, Christmas’ spirit of celebration is supposed to be a response to a preparatory time of sobriety and contemplation. This spiritual focus of the weeks of Advent is now largely ignored (though curiously Advent calendars have made a comeback). Today “preparation” is not about our spirituality but our holiday to-do list: decorating, shopping, baking, cooking, partying, etc.
Recent history tells us that Christmas had been fading in importance until an early modern media phenomena occurred: the publication in England of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The book was an overnight international sensation (pulling Dickens back from the edge of financial ruin). Almost instantly, Christmas was given a new, secular meaning of charity and moral uplift, as well as a commercial purpose: gift giving. We may blame the magi and their boxes, but for the source of the modern present mania we can point to Scrooge and that goose in the butcher shop window.
It’s always been known (but often forgotten) that December 25 is not Jesus’ birthday (a date no one knows). The day was chosen not for historical reasons but to give competition to the Roman pagan solstice festival Saturnalia. So no, Christmas worship is not a birthday party for Jesus (despite the notion’s recent popularity in some churches).
- S. Lewis distinguished the secular holiday from the religious one by calling it “Xmas”, in contrast with Christmas. And Xmas has taken on a life of its own. It will be whatever retailers, marketers, broadcasters, entertainers, and consumers want to make of it.
Given the state of religion, it’s not surprising that churches have nearly succumbed to this wave, only barely keeping out Santa, chestnuts, leg lamps, and singing “all I want for Christmas is you.” And while it is kind of sad to see the disappearance of SRO Christmas Eve crowds, it is easier now to experience a tranquility appropriate for the occasion.
Jesus’ birth is the event commemorated by Christmas, but the emphasis and meaning of the 12 day “season” is much larger. The central idea is incarnation, “the word made flesh” as it says in John 1, the Gospel reading appointed for Christmas morning. In Jesus, we see humanity and divinity come together, promising peace and salvation for all. “Joy to the world” indeed.
Peace and joy are probably not the firsts words people use to describe their Christmas (or Xmas) experience. Nonetheless that is the intended experience of this season because it is, the Bible says, the birthright of humanity.
Jesus’ birth is honored not because it was unique but because the extraordinary was revealed in its ordinariness. Luther loved the earthiness of the Christmas story: the dirt, the smells, the animals, the embarrassment, the inconvenience. Yet in the midst of all this, God appears.
And that is how God always appears. The continually missed message (even in the church) of incarnation is that God is here, not somewhere far off. It is the message of the Bible’s grand finale in Revelation 21: “See, the home of God is among mortals.” Who knew?
Christmas is our open invitation to look past the extravaganza, the exhaustion, and the annoying humanness around us and find the joy and peace always present. Like all miracles, the Christmas story opens our eyes to see what’s hiding in plain sight, all around us: that love and life are at the center of reality, and the face of God is in all the faces of this world.
Blessings in your life and ministry.