... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Christmas Eve
Message December 24th, 2015

Christmas back to basics

Text: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

Christmas – the celebration of the birth of Jesus has over the centuries seen many changes, and not al for the betterment of the Kingdom. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is not known either the date or the year. Luke writing in retrospect places the birth in the time of Herod Augustus and Quirinius. Yet, historically there is a problem in that Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius was not governor until 6 AD, a discrepancy of about 10 years. However, considering that Luke was writing almost 100 years after the fact, and that the modern archival and historical sciences were not employed in those days, he did well to be able to place the birth as closely as he did. Very early in the Christian church, Easter was the prominent celebration and not Christmas. And Christmas was a springtime celebration. It was not until Christianity reached England and there appeared a need to link Christian traditions to those of the local peoples. Since the winter solstice played a great role in England and had been a Roman festival as well, the church brought forth the idea of holding Christmas celebrations on December 25th, close enough to the solstice to intrigue the people but removed enough to not raise the ire of traditionalists in the church hierarchy. This syncretism – the molding of traditions of various cultures was not new, and certainly not isolated to the spread of Christianity. It was seen and recounted from earliest times. In fact the prophets often railed against it. In the time of Isaiah Ahaz and his wife had incorporated the worship of idols of neighbouring nations as a way to form various political liaisons and alliances. Even in our recent Christian history such syncretism is evident – the Christmas tree, the Yule log and even Santa and the Easter bunny are all relatively new innovations into Christianity – often as a way to help widen Christian influence and gain new adherents. The unfortunate consequence of syncretism is that the importance of the elements of the various traditions thus brought together becomes watered-down. Today the Santa spin has certainly drowned out the Christmas message.

On CBC this week there was a survey-interview with people on the street, asking if there were too much commercialization of Christmas and too much emphasis on gift giving. The vast majority of those speaking on air seemed to indicate that if they could they would abolish the concept of gift giving: an interesting push back. One person did mention the celebration of the winter solstice as a replacement for Christmas. The upshot in my mind of all the speakers was that Christmas has lost its intended message – the celebration of God’s entering into human history at a particular point in time, and in a particular place so as to change the course of human history, re-directing it to what God had originally intended.

In the days of Isaiah the people had indeed been dwelling in darkness – the northern kingdom of Israel including Nazareth had been invaded by Assyria. King Ahaz of the southern kingdom of Judah had accepted terms from Assyria looking for peace, but giving up their reliance on Yahweh, allowing Assyrian worship practices. The light Isaiah thus speaks of may be his own vision of God’s message to the people or it may have been that a new king was about to take Ahaz’s place. Either way the broader message and by turn prophecy was seen completed in the birth of Jesus, the story of which Luke records.

In this telling Luke provides “at least three incarnational themes” : historical, spiritual and social.

Historically the birth is located in Bethlehem, the birth place of David the traditional lands of Benjamin of the tribe of Judah. The place fulfills the prophecy that a new king, the Messiah, would also come from Bethlehem. The story also locates the time as being in the days of Augustus Herod and Quirinius. This is not just a fairy tale; a once upon a time tale, but a true story with specific time-lines, dates and other historical figures. And as a counter to modern listeners who in the midst of the syncretism of Jesus, Santa and commercialism end up questioning the idea of God entering into humanity, places Emmanuel, God with us, squarely in the birth of a particular baby Jesus, son of Mary. God is not some system of revealed truths and principles but a revealed person. Christmas is not about trees presents yule log, turkey dinners; it’s about God with us revealed in a particular person Jesus and our relationship to God in and through him.

In this sense the Lukan story has a spiritual focus for it centers us in who we are spiritually: creatures of a beneficent God who desires the best of and for us. The Christmas story is a story of the meeting of the divine and the earthly that gives a glimpse of the peace that could be and the harmony which is possible among all people. The angels are the voices of the spiritual realm speaking in the temporal. They provide the message that even the lowliest of people can hear. In human existence 3 elements are commonly spoken of: mind body and soul: the mind is the thinking process, the body the tangible elements and the soul the spiritual force which gives life to and defines the mind and body. Unlike fictional writings, scriptural ones tell us that the angels speak to the spiritual essence of humanity enlightening it as to the will and design of the Creator. In Luke and in fact all Christian writers, angels are the ones who point to Jesus as the Christ and not themselves. They tell us of the divine attributes which we are to incorporate into our lives so as to bring about peace hope joy and true love. The spiritual location of the birth of Jesus is part of our celebration not the pleasures of the body.

The third import of the story is its social implications – Bethlehem, the least of the cities of the tribes of Israel. Located some 10 km from Jerusalem, the greatest city, the contrast is palpable. Luke provides us with abundant contrasts in his narrative – Augustus emperor Herod king Quirinius governor – over against Jesus new born infant: the rich versus the poor: the intelligentsia over against the ignorant. Jesus is not revealed to the temple leaders nor the powerful rulers, but to shepherds. He is not born in the great city as in a palace; rather he comes to us in a manger – a feeding trough for cattle in a stable. This social reversal should still give us pause – who is truly blessed and who is bypassed by their own neglect! Who clearly sees over against whose own self-righteousness clouds the vision!

On this the eve of God’s entering into human history as a particular person in a particular culture and at a particular time, we need to pause and to reflect on what it is that we truly celebrate. Have we, in our head long rush to spread the Gospel, weakened it by the encrustations of modern myths and legends? Have we longed so much for peace and harmony and pleasant feelings that we have lessened the lessons of where to find true peace and happiness? Can we recapture the power of God with us and the angels’ appearances to the shepherds? For then we will be able to truly celebrate Christmas seeing and putting God at the centre as the Divine meets the human in the birth of Jesus. Then we will be able to join with the angels and declare “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”