If people took a word association test using the word Christmas, what might their responses be? I can guess they would be vacation, presents, shopping, Santa Claus, busy, family, happy, sad, parties, and the list would go on. Some might actually mention Christ or Jesus’ birth, but I wonder how many, even of Christians, would offer something spiritual as their first or primary sense of Christmas.
A bit of history…
For generations, Christmas wasn’t considered a holy day in the Church; the crucifixion and resurrection were considered far more worthy of remembrance and celebration. When it was recognized, it had assumed a time of winter celebration that already existed, one nowhere near the time of Jesus’ birth, though no one knows the date exactly. The word Christmas, Christ’s mass, doesn’t help, saying nothing of a the birth of Jesus; the Spanish does better with “Feliz Navidad,” literally meaning “Happy Nativity.” Still, it was a “holy day,” now holiday, observed with solemnity and reverence.
Traditions arose surrounding the simple story of Jesus’ birth recorded in the Gospels. A stone stable became a wooden creche, and cows and other Western animals joined the occupants more common in the East. The Magi became a group of 3 associated with the 3 gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, while the symbolism of the gifts was largely overlooked. A charitable Greek bishop of the 4th century gradually morphed into the modern Santa Claus, helped along presumably by Clement Moore‘s “The Night Before Christmas,” and Nicholas’ gifts for the poor children turned into the practice of giving each other gifts with charity usually replaced with a healthy dose of greed and cynicism.
Some of the most beautiful music ever written created the carols and compositions many still enjoy today. Sadly, however, popular music, secularized traditions, and political correctness have led to a spate of songs that range from the sentimental and romantic to the downright ridiculous, and a few that are childlike or funny. Some have led to other traditions like Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer, who walked right out of a 1949 Gene Autry song, based on a story published ten years earlier. Frosty, the Snowman, who has nothing to do with Christmas at all, walked out of another Autry song and into the holiday traditions, the following year, and the “Singing Cowboy” also helped Santa with Here Comes Santa Claus, a few years earlier. These and others were the songs of my childhood Christmases. I don’t know what to think about some that have become popular since like The Grinch Song. What does that have to do with Christmas?
Of course, television led to Christmas specials and more ideas and traditions, more than I will list here. The “spirit of Christmas” has become many things to many people. Some few, at least, reflect charity or generosity which are Christian virtues; most are simply non-religious sentimentality. Indeed, those sometimes tender feelings often lead to sadness and depression as real life moves on from childhood memory and idealized notions of Christmas into lonely or troubled reality. The sadness piles up as loved ones die, tragedies occur, and life proves to be less happy than promised. For example, I am a 62-year old, never married man without children; I live 200 miles from my mother and brothers’ families. The extended family gatherings of my childhood ended with the passing of my grandparents, and broken relationships have touched my kinfolk, just as most others.
I am not a scrooge, a bitter old bachelor who hated everything about Christmas, especially the generosity. Dickens’ portrayal has itself become a tradition, though people often miss the sacred element important to Dickens. I don’t object to the celebration or the numerous traditions, gift-giving, parties, music, and lights, even though trees and lights speak little of God without explanation. In a way, I think it is terrific that the world throws one huge party, every year, in honor of the birth of the King of Heaven, even if many have lost touch with that significance. I will say, “Merry Christmas,” but “Happy Holidays” or “holy days” makes me laugh (since it still says the same thing, like it or not!). “Merry Xmas” simply substitutes the cross for Christ, something I will gladly tell the ignorant when I can. I give gifts, though not so many, and enjoy receiving them, along with the confectionery delights shared with me (though I am fully capable of making them myself). The secular songs don’t bother me, accept when them become overplayed due to omitting the carols, reminding me that, if I resent anything, it’s the attempt to so alter Christmas as to take it away from Christ and his people. That I will not tolerate.
Now a bit of Bible…
I believe the best way to turn things around and improve the “spirit of Christmas” is to look at the attitudes of those who were present for the birth of Jesus.
Mary feared and wondered. I suspect even believers tend to take this birth for granted, one that was both terrifying and wonderful for Mary. God, the Creator, arranged for a human birth without a human father, creating Jesus who was both God and man. I feel sorry for Christians who attempt to find rational, non-miraculous explanations for occasions like this, where the God who made the laws of nature chooses to transcend them. Here’s an occasion where the word “awesome” truly applies.
Elizabeth’s unborn child leaped for joy. Of course, this “fetus” was John the Baptist who was the forerunner to Messiah. Even then, the spirit of Jesus filled the unborn child with joy. This is not the momentary fun of a welcome gift; this is the delight of a forever friend and savior, a hint of which every parent experiences in the birth of a child and in the lifetime connection of love. Now that is joy, a joy we should all strive to discover in Jesus.
Joseph obeyed. Joseph faced the reality of a unexpected miracle, a truly fatherless child. I suspect he struggled with believing in and loving a innocent Mary with her undeniable pregnancy. The angel brought resolution to this conflict but a lifetime of sadness from others who saw no miracle. Did he see the heartache ahead? I suspect he did, but he obeyed God’s messenger, married his betrothed, named the baby Jesus, and loved his wife amidst the scandal. What a man’s man to be the step-father of Jesus!
Someone made room for Jesus to be born. I think maybe the “innkeeper” has not been fairly treated by preachers over the years, if there ever was such a person. Caesar’s census required an influx of people return back to their home town of Bethlehem. Many surely stayed with families, but some had no existing family connections; available rooms in homes likely filled early, but Mary and Joseph would have traveled slowly, due to her imminent delivery. Some kind soul offered them a place among their animals, which often enjoyed accommodations not significantly poorer than the humans’. He was not intended to have the luxuries of a palace, who had left behind those of heaven, and the offer of a clean, private stable was undoubtedly received with gratitude.
The angels brought good news and praised and glorified God. Jesus’ birth is one of the nexus moments of history, when prophecy and the plan of God came together, but when only the angels were in a position to know and see it. To these remarkable servants of God, this event was yet amazing and joyous. Theirs was the privilege to make the announcement to the shepherds and to the world. I can’t begin to imagine their chorus, spoken or sung, of praise and exultation.
The shepherds went to see the baby and then spread the word. The promised Messiah had come, in remarkable circumstances, and they had to see it. After that, they could not keep silent, and the people at the time were amazed at the story. I often wonder what happened between those days and 30 years later when the adult Jesus walked the land of Israel. Did the story get lost in the family’s escape to Egypt, or did few take seriously the ravings of a bunch of shepherds? Nevertheless, they did their part as the miraculous fulfillment of prophecy became a story they had to share.
The Magi came to worship, rejoiced when they found Jesus, bowed before him, and gave him precious, significant gifts. If the shepherds represented common Jewish folk, the Magi were important, educated Gentiles who nevertheless understood the prophecies well enough to know Jesus was to be King over both. They undertook a difficult, expensive journey to see what the shepherds saw. They were following something prophetic but incomplete. This was not the impulse to see the unusual; it was a simple desire to worship the one promised in Jewish scripture. Naturally, they assumed that all Jews would be celebrating until they met Herod and his crew. Still, they found the information they needed and accomplished their mission of reverence to the true King of the Jews.
Herod was disturbed by the news of a rival, furious to be thwarted in finding him, and murderous in his response. For Herod, the birth of Jesus was a personal threat. Though he accepted the prophecies enough to find him, he rejected the reality of God’s Messiah and Savior. His response was to attempt to destroy what was beyond truly his reach, the very Son of God.
Mary treasured her experiences, the moments in this amazing birth, and she pondered them in her heart. Everyone thinks about the big moments in their lives; too many of them are unpleasant or even tragic. Some are happy; if we’re fortunate, our memories will be sweet or at least bittersweet nostalgia. For Mary, it was so very much more; we can only imagine her thoughts, her fears, her joy, or her sadness. For her faithfulness, we forever honor her, not as near divine as some do, but as a fine example of a faithful sinner, redeemed and used by God.
A bit of reflection…
I would not remove Christmas as a sacred holiday, despite the problems. Unlike pretenders, I believe King Jesus rejoices in the giant party held in his name, every year, although the excesses and efforts to displace him break his heart. I imagine he is saddest when we, his children, lose ourselves in the traditions and nearly forget him and his amazing birth ourselves. We’ve reached a time in history when Christians seem to despise theology to lose themselves in experience, but it’s impossible to do justice to this holiday without its theological significance.
Like Mary, we should stand in awe before the fulfillment of prophecy through a young virgin. As she pondered, so we should ponder that one born of a human woman and divine spirit to become the god-man whose death on a cross brought salvation, accessible to all people. Like the unborn John, we might leap for joy in the birth of one who is now our brother and friend, if we trust him. Like the angels, we ought to praise and exalt the God who chose to give his son to be our savior, rather than leave us to our own hopeless, insufficient efforts. As shepherds did, we should be thrilled in what we have seen and heard so that we can do nothing less than spread the good news. In place of hours and dollars spent in often frustrating efforts to buy gifts for those we neither love nor who deserve them, we could make ourselves more like the Magi who put their time, intelligence, and resources into seeking to worship the Child. For those who enjoy an occasion to pour out generously on friends and loved ones, I recommend their own birthdays; scale back gift-giving at Christmas, and direct some of your generosity at those in need.
What about Herod? His spirit of distress and anger with the true Christmas drives men and women to silence our celebration, belittle our faith, and demote our history into myth. Personally, I will never surrender the truth to the scoffers whatever they do. I will especially voice my convictions openly. I will exercise my rights as an American citizen to exercise and preserve free speech and freedom of religion and work to turn back the damage that has already be done to our heritage. However, I will love the naysayers, pray for them, and seek to show them the truth, even as they work against us. I will not respond to hate with hate, to anger with anger, or to scorn with scorn. I urge you not to let the spirit of Herod overcome the spirit of Christ, either in direct confrontation or in silent surrender. Remember, even from the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgiven them for they don’t understand what they’re doing.”
One final thought…
The birth of a child is a beginning, not an end. Anticipation is largely reserved for soon-to-be mother and father…and grandparents! The real celebration begins after delivery—announcements are made, pictures are taken, cigars are smoked, and baby-talk begins to be uttered by otherwise intelligent adults. Our Christmas traditions have become anticipatory, largely due to gift-giving, sales, and the music played on radio and in public places. On December 26, it all stops, lights are turned off at least by New Years Day, and life returns to dull dreariness. Why not let Christmas Day be our beginning and carry on the celebration after the world has stopped, a celebration freed from the secular traditions that encumber it?
As I revisit this, 2 years later, I’d like to add one very important thing, in case you’ve missed it here or elsewhere. Jesus came to do some amazing things, but the most critical of them was to die on a cross. Having lived a blameless life in perfect righteousness, he died by execution as a criminal. In this, he paid the price for another’s sin, and in being both God and man, he died for the sins of all who believe. He died for me; he died for you. Trust him, and he who paid the price wipes away all sin, so that each believer is worthy, in His name, to live in eternal fellowship with Him who is our Creator, Savior, and Lord. Until you trust him and receive his gift, you haven’t even begun to appreciate what Christmas is all about. Without Jesus, everything else is a pale reflection; in Him and through Him, is becomes so easy and right to say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” I pray that his glorious peace may be yours in the true spirit of Christmas.