Monday, December 25, 2006

The church’s celebration of the birth of our Lord

"Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”

These angelic words express the heart of this celebration that gathers us here tonight/today. We celebrate the birth of our savior and sing with the Angels, “Glory to God in the highest”. For the past four weeks we have been preparing for the birth of Christ. We have been the people who have walked in darkness that long to see the wondrous light. Tonight/Today that light illimines our hearts with tidings of comfort and Joy. Yet, we cannot forget that we are really celebrating a real person’s birthday, the birthday of Christ. There are those families that will go so far as to bake a cake and have their children blow out the candles to remind themselves of the reality of this birthday.

Around the middle of November, a student who was writing an article for the Iowa State Daily came to me and asked me to comment on the status of Christmas. As you are undoubtedly aware, Christmas began about two weeks before Thanksgiving this year for most retailers. He asked if I thought there were really two Christmases, two different uses of the same word, that people were invoking. It was with regret that I admitted to him that I, in fact, thought that to be true. Christmas is a national holiday in the United States. Most Americans will celebrate it. Yet, I believe that a sharp division is being drawn between a secular understanding of Christmas and the true celebration of Christmas that takes place in the lives of Christians. While I’m not willing to say there is a war on Christmas, I believe we would be mistaken if we were to deny the schism that has taken place.

The secular celebration, as I said, begins at least a month before the actual date of Christmas. While there is still sentiments of good will towards men, for the most part it deals with buying presents. Radio stations begin playing our Christian Christmas melodies over the air for a month, which will end precisely at midnight on December 26. The Christian celebration begins with an acknowledgement of waiting and preparation, similar to the secular celebration. But, we don’t usurp the celebration by worrying about details like shopping and presents. I mean, let’s face it, if it were my birthday, you wouldn’t start singing happy birthday a month and a half before the actual date. You would at least wait until the day of my birth before you started to do that. And I would hope that you would worry more about the gifts that you were giving me than the gifts you were giving to those coming to the birthday party. To me these two realities identify the largest difference between the secular understanding of Christmas and our Christian understanding: we believe that Jesus was a real person and that his birth was a real event. The Lord of Life who created us and watched with pain as we succumbed to the temptations of the evil one decided to walk among us and come into this world as “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” We believe that the prophecies from old have been fulfilled. “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”

And, for me, the most palpable difference between the two celebrations takes place in the days following Christmas. As the secular parts of society quickly turn from tidings of comfort and joy back toward the normalcy of life, Christians are just gearing up. The children may neglect the great presents Santa Claus gave to them. You may find yourself standing in line trying to return that one-size-too-small sweater that your family member gave to you. But you will come to church and finally sing the songs that celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Because, like our secular counterparts, we believe this celebration is too important to confine to one day. We want to celebrate it for about three weeks, until the celebration of the Epiphany. Yet, we also need to discover ways to live out this celebration of the birth of the Lord, to celebrate each day the God who dared to walk among us as one like us though free from sin.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you have to buy gifts for your family members each day of these three weeks. That’s really more a part of the secular celebration than the Christian one, though we can’t forget that tradition began when a certain Saint Nicholas gave candy to the poor children of his city. No, instead, let us focus on the side of things that our society tends to neglect: Good will towards our fellow human beings. Let this celebration be a time to love one another with even more gusto, especially family members that may be difficult to love. Let the good news of great joy continue to affect your life this Christmas season. Sing the great songs of praise for our King who walks among us.

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