Well, you know the Christmas routine: get the gifts – especially first get the gifts that you have to send early enough to make it to your relatives in time…get out the Christmas cards…read the cards others send to you…get the tree up…decorate, decorate, decorate…wrap, wrap, wrap the gifts…see the lights put up by your town or city…maybe listen to some of those songs on the radio, and so on and so forth.
You may notice that nothing I have said so far has made direct reference to the birth of Jesus Christ. Oh, sure, some of our decorations and ornaments in the Hewitt home are definitely related to the Nativity and other aspects of the “Christian” emphasis on Christmas. But even gift-giving – though one might say it was related originally to the three wise men or St. Nicholas – is not explicitly related to Christ’s birth. Yes, there’s a lot about Christmas that is secular – and by that I mean that part of the holiday that is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. Santa Claus and anything associated with Santa Claus has been secularized long ago. That allows for a bit of secular fun to be had at Christmas, like decorating the outside of our homes with various things – even things I’ve seen recently like a blown-up lawn ornament of Santa going in and out of an outhouse (not a favorite!). We shouldn’t be surprised at Secularized Christmas. By recent polls, of the 100 million or so Americans who are not Christians, 80% (or 80 million) celebrate some form of what we call “Christmas.” They celebrate the gift-giving, at the very least, which, we must admit since we give gifts on birthdays, is a lot of fun and a very touching way to celebrate our relationships with one another. Secular Christmas songs are likewise nearly always happy, as are the lights and such things are a real boost amid the shorter days and longer nights. It’s also the end of the year and time for parties, which we call Christmas parties. Secular Christmas has some very pleasing aspects, as we all seek to have a “Merry Ol’ Time.”
I love ornaments and have bought and put up many for our Christmas tree. Some of them are explicitly spiritual in nature: little manger scenes, a Joseph ornament, star ornaments, and even a large nail that reminds us of Christ’s death for us. Some may note the incongruity of putting up that nail – a symbol of death on a tree amidst a secular holiday that symbolizes life at its fullest. But, as you probably already know, there wouldn’t be a Christmas if the Christ Child hadn’t grown up and died for our sins and risen from the dead – actions which provide our faith pathway to eternity.
It’s not an incongruity to put a symbol of Christ’s death on a Christmas tree; it is an attempt to get at the paradoxical truth of not Secular but Spiritual Christmas…and the paradoxical truth of life itself: that life comes out of death. You see, one reason many non-tropical societies already HAD winter festivities before Christianity arrived is that, to ancient humanity, every winter seemed like a death: green grass disappeared, trees lost their leaves, days grew very short and nights grew very long – death seemed to be reflected everywhere. But then spring came and life returned. Christ’s resurrection historically came at the right time for that – in the spring – but when it came to Christ’s birth, we have no record of what part of the year that happened. So the church placed Christmas around the time when the days were shortest, when the least amount of light occurred, so that, like a candle in the darkness, the image of the infant Jesus could provide hope in the midst of hopelessness…a bit of human greenery in the midst of brown drab…a bit of symbolic life in the midst of nature’s symbolic death.
Jesus Himself used nature as a parable about what life – especially the life of a Christian in mission for God – should be about. Our “Boost from the Bible” today is when Jesus, in the last week of His life and having just heard that Greeks (non-Jews) were asking to meet Him, proclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Christ was tying together two things: 1) that all that falls to the earth in the fall is buried but gives new life in the spring; and 2) that Christ Himself would be buried to rise again. And we are called to die to ourselves – to bury our self-serving desires – in order to come to life as people who truly give of themselves to others, as little Christs in this world. That’s the paradoxical truth at the core of Spiritual Christmas, that true relationships grow when we not only give but sacrifice for those we love, as Jesus showed us when He sacrificed Himself on the cross…and that true justice occurs when we not only desire justice but sacrifice for those who lack a fair deal in life and who need justice to survive.
Jesus again put it this way: “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake and for the gospel will save it.” What’s amazing about the REAL message of Christmas is not that it takes us away from reality – away from the pangs and pains of life. The REAL message of Christmas takes us TO the pangs and pains of life and THROUGH the pangs and pains of life, as we see even in the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke. There we see a malicious king who lies and who murders innocent children…we see a man concerned about his fiancé’s situation, and how that strange situation might reflect on his own family’s honor and possible shame…we see a young woman get pregnant before marriage, possibly fleeing her hometown’s judgment of her to see her older cousin, whose husband is enduring a diving punishment for disbelieving an angel…we see that young pregnant woman endure the risk of being stoned to death…we see this young woman give birth far away from home and place that baby in a feeding trough, near livestock, not at all what we would expect from a newborn king…we see the parents of this child respond to divine warnings and flee to a totally new country to escape a minor holocaust…we see a lot of things that we would label “too realistic for a sweet movie story.”
But it’s the real Christmas story, put together by a real God who really loves us in real hard times. So let us not avoid the real this Christmas. Let us celebrate a Spiritual Christmas amid all the really strange things around us – all the COVID, all the confusion, and all the craziness. Let us think of the nails, the spear and the cross, just as the author of one of my favorite carols did: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary.” For the Word of God really WAS made flesh and really DID dwell among us, to bring us real grace and real truth. Let us suffer for others and let our single grain of life be buried deep into the reality of sin and evil, that it may blossom against that evil and bring new life to light. Let us take up even our Christmas crosses and follow our Savior. Amen!