A Christmas Message

The grace of God, which has appeared in the birth of Jesus the Christ, be with you always.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Christmas is about joy. You can see it in the face of a child ending the agonizing weeks of waiting in the full light of the Christmas tree. You can feel it around the table as families reunite and fond memories of past gatherings are shared. Christmas joy is experienced through the peace and rest of a break from daily efforts to make our way in the world.

As joyous as this season may be, Christmas can also be a time of grief and loneliness, pain and despair. As John Irving writes in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” We can see be overwhelmed by how we have fallen short of our expectations for the perfect celebration – the meal is too meager, the roast too done, the gifts insufficient, the empty places at the table too many.

The incarnation of Christ is grace poured out upon humanity for the sake of broken, weary people. Saint Ambrose, a great preacher and teacher, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century wrote in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke:

“He was a baby and a child, so that you might be a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on the earth that you may be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.
‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich….’
He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.
The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.”

Whether this Christmas brings joy or sadness, fulfillment or feelings of failure, or some bittersweet mixture of all these things, hear this: the center of the Christmas gospel is that God in Christ has invaded our space, sat down next to us to share our joy and bear our pain. Jesus is “God with us” – Immanuel. God has come to us to be incarnate in each moment of our living, each experience of joy and in every moment of suffering. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow expresses this presence of Christ in this way:

“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men!”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail
the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men!”

Jesus Christ was born for you and for me. That is what makes Christmas merry.

Pastor Tim

War on Christmas?

So, I was thinking that I must be really out of the loop these days.  Seems someone has declared war on Christmas (and so one must assume on Christians) and I had no idea. I’m merrily working away in my study instead of practicing battlefield tactics for parish pastors. I haven’t even dugout “Onward Christian Soldiers” so we can sing on the way to the front (note to David, our Minister for Worship and Music). I checked my inbox several times, nothing is there from my bishop or the ELCA offices in Chicago about how to cover this outpost from the attacks.  I checked in on Pope Benedict figuring at least Rome would be on top of this whole situation.  All I could find out was that he now has a Twitter account. Assuming it was all up to me, I tried a push up… (Lets hope my role on the field of battle doesn’t call for much heavy lifting). The church supply houses are not offering any camouflage clergy shirts, so apparently I’m not the only one who missed the commencement of hostilities. Perhaps we should get the property team on some barbed wire and barricades.

So, as I take my tongue out of my cheek, and with all due respect to Bill O’Reilly and the folks at Fox News and any other media outlets that are calling Christians to arms, I find myself wondering what is really up with the feeling – and it is an emotional response, not a rational one – that there is a “War on Christmas?

First, let’s not get pulled into the emotional drama. Those who announce we are at war are in the business of selling soap and filling every minute of every day with things that make us worried enough to watch, so hyperbole is a tool. Henny Penny was absolutely wrong about the sky falling, but the little chicken no doubt had good ratings.  Second, it seems to me that this kind of thing is really an emotional reaction to the changing world in which we live.  I know that the ghosts of Christmas past are powerful and give us a magnified sense of longing for the old days at this time of year – even if our memories are filtered through rose-colored lenses. So, when we hear that a town council has decided not to put up a nativity scene, or that a store has strung a banner that says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” we feel like our “good old days” are being turned to bad new days.  That makes some of us mad, perhaps fighting mad.  But, before we arm ourselves for war, we best make sure there is an enemy and that the enemy is not really us.

So, what about the battle of the winter greeting? Aren’t opposing forces trying to force us to stop saying “Merry Christmas?” Should we say “Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?”  “Happy Hanukkah?” “Blessed Kwanzaa?” or “Holly Jolly Winter Solstice?”  My answer: Sure.  Say them all, with gusto.  And don’t be afraid of the term Xmas — it is not an atheist plot.  Xmas is shorthand with a Greek letter. “X” (chi) is the first letter of “Christ.”

“But Pastor, aren’t these other people and traditions stealing our Holiday?”  No, not really.  The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is not done because Jesus was actually born on that day.  We have no real idea what day is really Jesus’ birthday.  Christians in the west stole December 25 from the pagans, who worship the sun.  It is near the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. “Happy Holidays” uses an English word that means “holy-days.”  Why would I wish a Jewish friend anything but “Happy Hanukkah?”  Why would I wish someone who does not believe in Jesus as the Son of God a “Merry Christmas” unless I was trying to provoke.  It is that kind of behavior that probably turned the person off to Christians in the first place.  Accept a greeting for what it is.  Give a greeting that edifies the other person.  No enemies here.

Ah, you say, but what about the ACLU and all those atheists who keep taking down public displays of the Nativity?  They must be enemies.  Maybe. Maybe not.  Personally, I don’t want city hall or the public schools messing with the proclamation of the gospel.  The Oklahoma State House now has a monument to the 10 Commandments.  It is drawing fire from those who say it is not appropriate for the state to promote religion.  Proponents insist that we are a “Christian” nation.  Ahem.  Excuse me, but the 10 Commandments are the Jewish covenant first.  Second, the commandments are ordered in a way that does not match Luther’s Small Catechism.  And last but not least, they misspelled Sabbath. “Sabeth.” No kidding. Leave the faith stuff to the church, please. I’m beggin’ ya.  I also do not want Macy’s and Younkers messin’ with our holy symbols.  The wise men did not bring the latest Christian Dior fragrance. No enemies here.

The truth is that if there is a “war on Christmas” it has been raging for a long time and the enemy is us. The celebration of the birth of a savior who we would eventually crucify is far more serious than candy canes and fruitcake.  God’s intrusion into the world through the incarnation is too mysterious and awe-filled to celebrate with endless choruses of “Frosty the Snowman.”  The humble birth of Jesus is a much deeper reality than an extended orgy of shopping and spending.  So, I have developed a keen strategy for this war on Christmas.  Let the culture have the shopping, the trees, the blaring music, the cards and the wrapping paper. Let December be for most a limitless venture in debt, unfulfilled expectations and reminiscing about days gone by. Forfeit the battle. For people of faith, retreat and quietly, just give us Jesus.  The only war is for our souls and only Jesus can win it – and he already has. Happy Holy-days. Merry Xmas. Blessed Hanukkah. But mostly, May the peace and joy of Christ by with you all.

Just some joy and a bit of bah humbug for your season.

Pastor Tim