Celebrating Two Christmases
December 12, 2004
Christmas is a cultural phenomenon. It is also a religious event. There is a great advantage in keeping the similarities and the differences between these two Christmases clear. That is why today I want to spend a few moments comparing and contrasting cultural Christmas with religious Christmas.
Cultural Christmas has a tremendous impact on all of our lives, certainly an economic one. Without increased Christmas sales most retailers would not be able to survive. Yet the influence of cultural Christmas is not limited to money, for it also conveys to our society a set of spiritual beliefs. People who do not believe in Jesus or even in God are nevertheless influenced by cultural Christmas. At this time of year they feel the increased importance of family, an invitation to be more generous, and a general feeling of hope. Whenever we listen to a cultural Christmas song or watch a T.V. special it is likely that these spiritual values will be present, inviting us to care for one another, to work for peace, to make the world a better place. If you go and see the movie The Polar Express you will hear the admonition: “never forget the magic the mystery of Christmas.” The movie is encouraging us to be the best people, the most loving people we can be. Now are these spiritual beliefs of cultural Christmas valuable? Absolutely. Should we as believers espouse them? Certainly.
But here is where the difference between cultural and religious Christmas comes into focus. We as believers espouse more about Christmas than what cultural Christmas would propose. We believe that Christmas is more than just us loving one another. It is God loving us. We believe that the most important thing about Christmas is not about what we do or should do, but about what God has done and continues to do. In other words, we believe in the Incarnation. That truth of our faith that tells us that God took up a human nature; that God became one of us; that God became Savior for the world. That primacy of what God did and continues to do in our lives is at the heart of religious Christmas. It certainly is reflected in all the scriptures. Today’s scriptures would be a good example. Isaiah says, “God is coming to save us.” The letter of James says, “The Lord is near.” And in Matthew’s gospel we see John the Baptist presented as “the one who is preparing the way of the Lord.” The scriptures see the action of God as primary, and that action is certainly at the heart of religious Christmas.
So you can see by this explanation that the relationship between cultural Christmas and religious Christmas is not simple. It is complex. The two are not opposed to one another because both are promoting peace, forgiveness, and love among people. And yet religious Christmas believes more, for it believes in the centrality of God’s action, which cultural Christmas does not include.
Here is where the real advantage of being a person of faith emerges. When we approach Christmas from a religious perspective there is more potential for joy and love. For if all Christmas is about is us loving one another, forgiving one another, working for peace in our world; then, as beautiful as those motivations are, there is not really much hope. Because if the mystery of Christmas depends upon our ability to produce it – the future is not bright. We are really not that good at loving or at forgiving. Look at the world in which we live: how many places are characterized by hatred, by war, by violence. Look how we struggle even to forgive the people who are close to us; how we move along trying to make our lives work among the brokenness of our relationships and the stresses within our own family. As much as we desire love, and forgiveness, and peace, if accomplishing those things rest in our hands only – there is not much reason for optimism. But when we adopt the religious aspect of Christmas, everything changes. For if God has become one of us; if the Word has become flesh; if God continues to work in our midst to bring about love and reconciliation and peace; then the whole burden is not simply upon us. Then we trust that God is active, and where God is active what is impossible becomes possible. When God is active in our world, then despite all of our shortcomings, there is reason for hope.
So I encourage you to embrace the values of cultural Christmas. Go out and see The Polar Express. Look forward to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Be thankful for your Christmas cards that have Frosty the Snowman on them. They all point to the magic, to the warmth, to the love of this season. But, if you really want magic and warmth and love; then be thankful that you are a believer. Be thankful that you believe in God who is active in our world. If God became flesh, if God is Emmanuel, then the promises of Christmas are much more likely to happen. If God continues to act in our world and in our life, then despite all of our shortcomings we can be confident. Then we cannot only sing about a Christmas of magic, of warmth, and of love, but with God’s help we can find it and live it.
Changing Expectations With John
December 16, 2007
It is only a week until Christmas and therefore the witness of John the Baptist is more important than ever. Probably the greatest gift of John the Baptist’s witness is his ability to change, his ability to refocus his expectations, to let what he wants go and to accept what God gives. We see John doing that in today’s gospel. In most of the passages of scripture concerning John, he is confident that Jesus is the Messiah and he proclaims this good news to others. But today’s gospel is different.
In today’s gospel John is not so sure. For some reason it seems John was expecting a different kind of Messiah. To express his doubt and his disappointment he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” That is like saying, “I had something else in mind and I am thinking that maybe I should wait for someone else.” Look how Jesus responds. He does not attack John. He does not defend himself. He simply points to the undeniable great things that are happening in his ministry. Jesus says, “Maybe you were expecting something else. Maybe you wanted someone more challenging or more aggressive, someone who would make a bigger splash. But look: the blind can see, the lame can walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed are you if you can see it. Blessed are you if you do not take offense that the Messiah who you were expecting is not me. Blessed are you if you can let go of what you were expecting and claim the good things that God is doing through me.”
Now we have every reason to believe that John was able to let go and accept Jesus as the Christ. Many of us might have to follow the example of John as Christmas approaches. Because of all the times of the year, none places more expectations upon us than Christmas. We have expectations of what Christmas should be that go all the way back to our childhood. We want it to be a calm and joyful season. We want our gifts to be perfect. We want our family to be at peace. We want our hearts to be filled with love and hope.
There is nothing wrong with any of these expectations. But from year to year life does not always cooperate. If we are worried about our job or our future, it is hard to have a heart that is filled with joy and hope. If we are dealing with the loss of someone in death or a serious illness that is affecting someone whom we love, we do not have the energy or the desire for Christmas shopping or for celebrations with family and friends. When our families are marked with anger or divorce, it is unlikely that we will find peace under our Christmas tree.
In those circumstances we can feel very much like John the Baptist. We can ask Christ, “Is this really the Christmas that I have to celebrate this year? I would prefer to wait for another.” Jesus in his own patient way responds, “This is what it is this year. But I hope that you can see the good things that are still happening in your life. Blessed are you, if you can see them. Blessed are you, if you do not take offense that the Christmas you expected is not the one you have. Blessed are you, if despite your worries and your fears, you can still be thankful because of your family, your health, your friends, your home. I know that you wanted more. I know that you expected it to be different. But if you can find the good things that are present in your life, they will be enough.”
The good news about Christmas is that it does not need to meet our expectations. It does not have to be big. It does not have to be the same as it was ten years ago, or even last year. It does not have to compare to anybody else’s Christmas. At the heart of this feast is the good news that God comes to us. And God comes to us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, even if they are ones that we were not expecting. For many of us, then, it is important to follow the example of the Baptist. We must let go of what we were expecting and accept what has been given. We must forget the things we cannot have and claim the good things in our life that are ours. If we can do that, if we can claim the blessings that God has indeed given us, we will find Christ. And if we find Christ, we will find Christmas.
So let us find him and rejoice.