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How Christmas Works
December 26, 2004
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Matthew chapter 2 and follow along as I read verse 13. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
There is a Website on the Internet entitled “How Christmas Works.” This website is a one-stop shop for all your questions about the holiday.
For example, why do people give each other presents on Christmas Day?” Some people say that the tradition started with the gifts that the wise men brought to Jesus, but notice the wise men did not give gifts to each other. No one was really in the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts on Christmas until late in the 1800s. The first year that Macy’s department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve was 1867. and 1874 was the first year for its special Christmas window displays. The Santa Claus story, combined with the marketing expertise of American merchants has made gift-giving the central focus of the Christmas tradition. Here in America, Christmas gifts probably owe more to Macy’s than to the Magi.
Another question: Is December 25 really the day Jesus was born? No one knows. Christian leaders in the year 336 set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25. They did so because the last week in December was already a popular pagan holiday that celebrated the winter solstice. Thus, Christian leaders sought to “Christianize” the holiday.
What does mistletoe have to do with the Christmas story? Nothing. The Celtic druids believed mistletoe was a sacred plant because it grows between heaven and earth. The legends we have about mistletoe come from pagan sources not Christian sources.
What are the twelve days of Christmas? These are the days that separate Christmas Day from Epiphany, celebrated on January 6. In the past, there was a tradition of giving small gifts throughout the twelve days, rather than stacking them all up on the morning of December 25. That tradition never really caught on. The well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” probably started as a type of memory game for children. A leader recited the first verse, the next child recited the second verse, and so on ... until someone missed a verse and had to pay some kind of penalty. Despite rumors about its secret Christian messages, the song probably has no religious significance at all.
Now these sample questions, and many others, show us that a cultural and religious tradition like Christmas takes years, even centuries, of formation to become the event it is today. Christmas in the 21st Century is the result of traditions and legends and customs that have evolved over time.
These cultural accretions probably do not help us to “put on” Christmas. Our question is: Does Christmas really work for us? Is there a lingering, lasting effect that Christmas produces in us and for us? Today is December 26th. Is the Christmas spirit still with us?
When we ask those questions, we remember that the first Christmas almost did not work. It almost did not happen. Dig beneath the peaceful picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and you find ugly surprises. Take a close look at the gospel of Matthew, and you will be stunned by the danger and death that permeate the original Christmas story. Christmas should never have happened at all.
First, Joseph packed his teen-aged pregnant wife onto a donkey and went on a 120-mile trip. She was in the last stage of her pregnancy. It was a miracle she did not miscarry. Secondly, you do not go to a city that you know will be packed out, and just hope you will find lodging, not a good move Joseph. Thirdly, the child was born in a manger, a trough from which livestock ate hay. This was not a sterile environment. It was not a typical birthing center. You might ask how did children survive back then? Many of them did not. Infant mortality rates were appalling high in the first century. But Jesus survived.
And then there are the wise men who almost did not make it to Bethlehem. They were probably Persian astrologers whom we call Magi. They had the star to guide them, but they assumed that the king would be born in the capital city in a royal palace. So, they went to Jerusalem and asked King Herod about this royal birth. That was a very dangerous thing to do. The last thing Herod wanted to hear about was the birth of his replacement. Herod had his learned scholars consult the prophecies and they reported that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He told the wise men to go to Bethlehem and find the child, and then return to him and tell him so that he also might worship the newborn king. Of course, cruel old Herod intended to murder the baby.
You know how the wise men succeeded in their quest. They found the baby Jesus with his mother Mary, and worshipped him and gave him gifts. But God must have loved these wise men, these Magi, because he warned them not to go back to Jerusalem. They were to leave the country by another way.
Further, v13, tells us that when the wise men had left, God warned Joseph to get out of Dodge, to also leave the country. Joseph was always a man who obeyed God. He was gone that night, and it was well that he obeyed promptly because King Herod soon figured out that the wise men had tricked him. He flew into a rage and sent his soldiers—but they were not soldiers, they were murderous gangsters—he sent them to Bethlehem to kill all male children under two years of age. This is known as the “slaughter of the Innocents.” We do not know how many children were killed. The exact number does not matter. We are shocked by Herod’s callous brutality. I think that one thing we can be sure of is that we are not likely encounter Herod in heaven.
So Christmas almost did not happen the first time, and it often does not happen for us now. Of course, we go through the motions. The presents, the Christmas cards, the shopping, the food, the parties, and so on.
But that is not Christmas. That is the holidays. Like the wise men, we have to take a detour around these dangers. If we are going to gain access to Jesus, we have to find another way. The wise men protected Jesus by evading the expectations of Herod, and we should follow this same path. Our access to Jesus may require eliminating some of the Christmas expectations that can elevate our anxiety.
You perhaps know that for many people the Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. We obsess about buying gifts for everyone with whom we have any kind of relationship. Now I confess that I do not obsess about buying gifts. My wife will tell you that. But many people are all stressed out by the strain of getting something for everybody, even aunt so and so whom they have not seen since last Christmas. We obsess about trips. You know the song, “over the river and through the dale to Grandmother’s house we go.” Then, we obsess about holiday decorations, and insist that our houses be decorated both inside and outside. We even obsess about being happy. We tell ourselves that this is the happiest time of the year. We put on fake smiles and sing happy songs, and wonder why we are not happy. How can we be when we are under all this stress?
Then there are all those people who feel left out. They are not part of a family for one reason or another. Perhaps they are in nursing homes, perhaps their health is shattered. They are lonely and isolated. Christmas for them is just depressing. No wonder that there are more suicides at Christmas than any other time of the year. It is no wonder we have so many depressed people this time of year. Christmas does not work for them.
Christmas works when we remember that Christmas has always been a dangerous business. It was dangerous on the first Christmas because there were powers in the world that did not want Christmas to happen, and were willing to go to any extreme to prevent it from happening. There are powers in the world now that still try to prevent Christmas from happening in our lives. I would say that in the United States, those powers have pretty much succeeded. We are so distracted by the holiday and all its cultural trimmings that there is absolutely nothing left for Christ.
In many homes, the Christmas tree has entirely replaced the nativity scene. It is even getting harder to buy nativity scenes. Now this is a matter of emphasis. Certainly if you want to buy a nativity scene, they are still sold, but there is not doubt that the cast of characters that we find at the first Christmas—the baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary, shepherds—these have been largely replaced by Rudolf and Santa and presents under the tree.
For years, Christians have felt some apprehension about the way our secular Western culture treats the sacred things of our faith. We sometimes feel that every religion is tolerated by our society, except Christianity. Whenever somebody invents some new cult, we are told that we must give them their religious rights. But whenever a Christian starts to talk about Jesus, we are told to hush because we are trying to force our religion on other people.
I am always amazed by the way our media treat the name of Jesus. We have a lot of religious programming that talks about God and heaven and angels and doing good to each other. And that is all very well, but much of our religious programming does not mention Jesus at all.
I am not the first person to notice this. Many social commentators have observed that in much of Western media there is a “Jesus Void.” Jesus is the five-letter word that you cannot say. Some Christians have even gone so far as to say that there is a conspiracy in Western society that is out to destroy Christianity. I do not go that far. I do not believe much in conspiracy theories. But you cannot help but observe the hostility that exists between our secular society and our faith.
And you see this especially in the alternate celebrations of Christmas. On the one hand are Santa Claus and the reindeer and Rudolf and all the material emphasis on gift-giving. That is the Christmas of western secular society. On the other hand is Jesus—Jesus the baby whom Herod tried to murder in his crib. Jesus who grew up to die on the cross for you and me. For Christmas to work, it must look toward the cross, and that is certainly what any secular celebration of Christmas does not do.
We often say that Christ is the reason for the season. We have all the right words, you see. We just need to apply those words. Christmas is not easy, because it demands that we put “the hopes and fears of all the years” to work. Christmas calls us to affirm Christ our savior, Christ our Lord, Christ our beloved, and to make that affirmation in the very face of a whole society which is determined to talk about something else. That is not easy. But if we do it, Christmas works.
Christmas works when we shatter the false gods of materialism, and the idols of ambition, and the demons of self-importance, and recognize the Christ child as the promise and priority of our lives. When Christ is the center of our daily living, then the demons of stress and obsession will be controlled.
In the film, A Beautiful Mind, there is a moment when John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, comes to terms with demons of schizophrenia. His hallucinations do not go away. They never go away, but he learns to ignore them. There is a scene when these demons, being ignored, appear sad, and understand that they no longer exert any influence over Nash.
When we honor Christ, and not the culture of Christmas, then Christmas really works for us. The demons of stress and obsession are still there, they never go away, but they have no control over us because we have learned to put them in their place..
We can still do, if we want, all the cultural things of Christmas. We can still do Santa Claus and still give gifts and still decorate, but because we have Christ in the center of things, none of those things will have much influence over us.
That is the way it should be. Remember that Christ is with you. Allow his power to flow through your hearts, allow his love to touch your life, allow Jesus to light up your life and you will be his light in the world. That the message of Christmas. That is the true meaning of Christmas. Amen.
Brain, Marshall. “How Christmas works.” Howstuffworks Web Site. People.howstufworks.com. Retrieved June 14, 2004.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/13/05