December 23, 2011

Finding the Christ Child at Christmas

Brace yourself. We’re going to talk about Christmas. Like it or not, feel overwhelmed or passive, consider it a joy or a burden, it’s that time of year again.

And it’s been a long season. The Christmas decorations have been up since before Halloween. We’ve all tried to get everything done that we are supposed to: We’ve shopped until we dropped, we’ve wrapped everything in sight, decked all the halls, eaten until we feel like we should burst, and most likely spent more than we should, (but it IS Christmas, after all), we’ve done all the things we’re supposed to do because it’s Christmas.

Well – everything? I have to admit last year I may have not quite gotten to everything – I waited too long to wrap things, didn’t achieve my traditionally stated goal of starting shopping earlier, (never mind my fantasy of MAKING all my gifts), I didn’t quite recapture the Christmases of my youth and, I must admit, once or twice I didn’t get to the candles on the Advent wreath until Tuesday – or Wednesday… Well, either way, this year we’ll all tried again, gave it our all, and then we’ll put it back in it’s appropriate box by New Years so we don’t have to worry about it again for another year!


Has Christmas really come down to this? Is it really a burden with a finish line – a thing to dread each year as retail’s “Black Friday” fires the starter pistol at the beginning of the season? How can we possibly keep track of Christmas and its seemingly hidden meaning in the midst of what surrounds us each day on the lead up to the big event?

How do we keep our Christmas Spirit? Garrison Keillor once described the problem of trying to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace while fighting the crowds at the Mall to purchase a video game called Annihilation. Or, perhaps more directly, George Bernard Shaw described Christmas as an “atrocious institution. We must be gluttonous because it is Christmas. We must be drunk because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous; we must buy things that nobody wants, and give them to people we don’t like; we must go to absurd entertainments that make even our little children satirical; we must writhe under venal officiousness from legions of free-booters, all because it is Christmas – that is, because the mass of the population, including the all powerful retailers, depends on a week of waste and impermanence to clear off its outstanding liabilities at the end of the year.”

If Shaw’s view of Christmas hits a nerve for you, I’m sorry – I have to admit it hits a nerve for me sometimes at Christmas, too.

But then, in contrast, the reading from Luke presents us with people like Simeon, who has waited his whole life for the deliverance of Israel. He meets Mary’s newborn and sees all of his prayers answered in that single moment. He blesses the child, and tells Mary of the child’s destiny – and that Mary will have a sword pierce her soul. A blessing with an edge to say the least.

Anna, too, praised God and spoke to everyone about this child who grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and who had the favor of the Lord. She had waited for a long time for this birth, and could not, would not, dismiss it lightly. All babies are a miracle to me – and a celebration of a birth is just the beginning of a long and involved process – a process that will journey through peaks and valleys – joys and hardships.

One cannot celebrate a birth then just walk away. There is more to any child’s arrival than the Precious Moments sentiment and Hallmark moments. While a birth brings great Joy, there is also a need to get ready – because life changes with each birth. Simeon and Anna knew this and were willing to share that with anyone who would listen. I can’t picture either of them celebrating this birth then breathing a sigh of relief as they pack it up to stick it back in the attic. This was a birth they had waited for – and prayed for – and they knew their lives would change because of it. They believed and saw hope in what was to come – and they knew part of what was coming would be a rough road.

As Gilbert Howard described it, “Anyone who happened along the streets of Bethlehem might have looked good naturedly at the baby lying in Mary’s arms, but by no means everyone would have looked good naturedly at the Son of man who later went out of Nazareth. He offended their prejudices, he challenged their convictions, he set up standards of right and wrong, which blasted their respectability. He outraged them because they felt that he was always ignoring the best people and championing the common crowd. If we could conceive that in their day someone had invented a kind of Christmas, a pleasant cheerful Christmas unrelated to any drastic issues of their life, they might have entered into it good-humoredly enough. But the man Jesus was another matter. If people honestly mean to be Christians, they cannot stop with the sentiment of Christmas.”

As the carol says, “a new king’s born today”. We celebrate the birth, and all that it means – all the potential for the change in the world and the change inside ourselves. Can we really just box that up and put it away until next year? A new birth needs to be cherished every day. We celebrate the birth and we see the work that will follow.

I think we also need to give some thought to the wise men and their travels. The story of the wise men is told only in the Gospel according to Matthew and has become an iconic part of the Christmas story. “Wise” men, though – the passage is footnoted in the Bible I have at home as describing “Literate, political officials in the courts of Parthia, Armenia or regions east of Judea.” This group of travelers was considered wise enough that Herod consulted them, and feared their knowledge, their words and their predictions.

Now, I mentioned earlier the notion of getting everything done we were “supposed to do” for Christmas – if ANYONE should be able to get everything done they are supposed to, shouldn’t it be a wise person? Think about it for a minute – who are some of the wisest people you know? What makes them wise? If this group is “literate, political officials” one would assume that they know what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and how to get it done.

But what do they do in this story? This group of wise men has taken off across the desert to follow a star. There is no suggestion they have a map, there is no calling triple A for directions, and there certainly weren’t any GPS systems available – I suspect a GPS would melt if you suggested following a star, anyway. Is traveling like this considered “wise?” They also have scripture, which, being scripture, gives them a little more to go on, but isn’t necessarily the clearest version of “take a left at this sand dune then bear right at the oasis.”

I’m not sure any of these wise men would qualify as a savvy traveler – but, out of all the available recommended traveling tools, they traveled with faith. It is their faith that gets them where they are going. They pack their gold, frankincense and myrrh and find the baby and give an offering of gifts for a king.

In today’s world I’m not sure we would be able to find the child in this way, especially at Christmas. We have our schedules and check-lists of things to do and what to buy – we maximize every moment of time we can on the lead up to the big event – Christmas Day – we check our maps every few minutes to make sure we are on course THEN, of course, we come to the climactic moment where we have reached our destination we pack it away for another year – perhaps with a few more notes tucked into the guidebook about travel plans for next Christmas.

This sort of Christmas – the kind Shaw describes – the unsettled feeling Keillor discusses – the rush and the panic and the attempts to grasp things we can no longer grasp seem, at best, counterproductive. Christmas calls out for that time in all of us to honor the newborn child – it calls for us to put down our maps and our checklists and our sales flyers and our expectations and to go outside, even just for a few moments, to follow a star.

What will be born – or re-born - in you this Christmas? How will you care for that birth?

Did you put the map aside at some point? Did you look to the sky and find a star? Where did it take you?

…And here’s the gift – if you don’t quite do these things by the 25th, it’s still Christmas. There are 12 days, after all, and in these 12 days we can celebrate Christmas as a journey – not a finish line – not a destination – not something that can be put back in a box and stuffed back in the attic - but a journey we are invited on again and again.

In closing, I offer this reflection from Edward Ericson: 

If as Herod, we fill our lives with things and again things;
If we consider ourselves so important that we must fill every moment of our lives with action;
When will we have the time to make the long slow journey across the burning desert as did the Magi;
Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds;
Or to brood over the coming of the Child as did Mary?
For each of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

Follow that star. Celebrate the birth. I wish you all a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart .