In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Well, that happened quickly, didn’t it? 2015, I mean—another calendar year zipping by, a winter that feels more like early Fall, and here we are, once more, on the day that will give way to Christmas Eve.
Are you ready? Am I ready?
I suppose it all depends on what you mean. Am I ready for the glitz, the gifts, my nephew and niece swamping my parents’ living room with wrapping paper?
Oh, I finished my shopping—just. I’m ignoring all the emails from Department Stores, from Amazon and Best Buy and Costco, among various other sellers of things good and less good.
And I’m saying to myself. “It is enough. Let it be enough.”
I don’t come to Christmas the way I did as a child—breathless with excitement for a large pile of toys. One of the down sides of growing up, maybe. But maybe not. Because when the wrapping paper is torn through, and the favorite toys mine at last, the rest of the day could seem anticlimactic. And as adults, we can often buy ourselves the things we want as well as the things we need. So the child’s Christmas in New York approach didn’t work for me anymore.
A few years back, I was rereading a favorite novel of mine,
Robertson Davies' A Mixture of Frailties (1958), in which a young writer enjoys a Christmas in Wales. Davies has him tell a friend that:
If I were at home, I would have finished my Christmas shopping a full two weeks ago; I would have wrapped everything up in elaborate paper, and tied it with expensive twine.(P. 176-177 (first ed.))
[Yes, he said "expensive trwine. Just go with it.]
I would approach the great festal day prepared for everything but a good time.... [F]or the first time in my life, I have got Christmas into focus. Tomorrow, I shall worship, I shall feast, and--quite incidentally, I shall give and receive.
I've tried to learn from that, to make the worship central, the good times with family and dear friends central too, and the giving and receiving a pleasant incidental. The joy is in the celebration, the music, and the day, not in the "stuff." The gifts are symbols, symbols of affection and celebration. Even the massive, rock-like Panettone that someone is absolutely going to dump on me.
But what are we celebrating, here, today, in the drab last days of 2015? Isaiah tells us that “unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given.” And in the King James version that sounds pretty impressive. And the shepherds were given the same news, from an angel no less. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
But Jesus’s birth took place just about two millennia ago. What are we still celebrating for?
Are we waiting for the Second Coming, when so many think we’ll get the conquering Messiah Jesus refused to be? I don’t get that feeling.
No, I think we’re celebrating something far better than that. I think we’re celebrating the fact that our scriptures and our holy tradition tell us the decisive intervention of God in human affairs was to come down from heaven and share in all our joys and all our sufferings.
To be one of us, and share all the good and all the bad. To roam from town to town, and to help those who would let Him. To choose to die rather than to choose violence, and to love unconditionally throughout his life. Our Christian story isn’t like Greek mythology, where all-powerful gods and goddesses use people up like the toys kids will unwrap tomorrow. It isn’t like Norse mythology, where battles are fought to a standstill, creation is destroyed—and then the whole bloody cycle starts again.
No, our story is one where we first glimpse God in a newborn infant. A little child born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. We first see Jesus as a homeless child, stabled among the animals.
And yet that child is special. He won’t write any books. He won’t be a conqueror. He’ll just serve people, forgive them, heal them, and feed them. And he’ll teach them and us that that’s the very nature of God.
In the wake of the First World War, an Anglican theologian tried to explain to a bruised and battered people what the Incarnation meant, what Christmas was all about. He did it very briefly. “God is love,” Charles Gore wrote, “and love is sympathy and self-sacrifice.” Sympathy doesn’t mean pity—it means to feel with others, to share in their experiences. And self-sacrifice isn’t an exercise in beating oneself up. It’s giving of ourselves to help others.
And so, Gore wrote, “[t]he Incarnation is the supreme act of self sacrificing sympathy, by which one whose nature is divine . . .” emptied himself of divinity in order to grow, feel, think, and suffer like we do.
Or, to put it more bluntly, the story that defines us is one in which love, forgiveness, and compassion are so important that we believe that they are the very best not just of humanity, but of God. And we also believe that that love, that compassion, that forgiveness are as true of God today as they were that first Christmas Eve.
The Christmas story isn’t just a sweet story, it’s our story. It’s the story of love in a violent, often cruel world not so very different from ours. Isis rages, people shoot kids in schools, congregants in a church, or coworkers at a holiday party, and the powers of the world look on, unable to stop the violence, or, worse, fanning the flames.
And that’s just this year.
But God is there, in the victims’ families when they forgave the murderer who opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. God is there with the teachers who gave their lives to protect their students. And God is there in San Bernardino when Shannon Johnson made himself a human shield for a coworker, telling her “I got you.”
We celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the Incarnation, because it never ends. It’s not a historical event; it’s ongoing.
We celebrate it because God is here, and Christ is now.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.