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

Christmas Eve Year B, Message Dec 24th, 2011

Christmas – the Real Celebration

Text: Luke 2:1-20

Today we celebrate Christmas but we have to ask ourselves, “what is it that we are celebrating?” and perhaps more poignantly, “Why?” Fifty or sixty years ago such questions would have seemed absurd and out of place. However in those intervening years society has changed so much that Christmas has become more of a myth than a reality. In a country which seems bent on multiculturalism and equality of faiths and ethnic identities, Christianity is fast becoming a visible minority amid a sea of other religious observances. No longer is it politically or culturally correct to say to someone else, “Merry Christmas”. It is frowned upon to sing Christmas carols in which there is any mention of Jesus. Instead we are encouraged if not mandated to say, “Happy Holidays” and to alter the songs and carols to express a generality for this particular time of winter.

Many arguments are being put forth as to the inappropriate Christian usurping of December 25th. True, the date was an arbitrarily related date, and yes, it was selected as being close to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice as a way to incorporate the life traditions of those recent converts to Christianity in the early centuries. However the date has taken on its own tradition and come to mean so much.

How many of us celebrate our own birthdays on the actual date year in and year out? I know from my own childhood that such was not the case. Sure the immediate family always had a festive supper on the exact date, but the birthday party was often totally different some time by as much as 6 months. Even now-a-days, birthday celebrations are overshadowed by work commitments, illness travel, convenience etc. And we know the exact date of our births.

Not so with Jesus. We don’t even know the exact year. While Luke places Jesus birth at the time of the Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor and a general census being undertaken, these dates don’t jibe. Quirinius wasn’t governor until the year 6 of the Common Era. The closest census on record was some 10 years earlier. “How” we might ask, “can this be?” Think back and ask yourself, when you first learned to ride a bike. Most if not all would not be able to give the exact year let alone the date. Jesus’ birth and youth were not generally known or recorded. Every bit of information we have would have been recalled from memories of those who knew him during the last 3 years of his life, and those who many years later wrote about him – the first such writings being almost 30 years after his death and resurrection.

So what is it then that we celebrate? It is not the commemoration of an actual historical date! Rather it is the active remembering of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and the promise of the completion of God’s reign. As such we know that this active remembering will also lead us to the recollection of the events leading to Good Friday and the realization of the first Easter event. All of course focuses on God’s actions in and through Jesus. At Christmas we are called to once again participate in the witnessing of God’s bridging the chasm between the Divine and the human. This commencement of the process of salvation which we refer to as the incarnation is the reason we remember and are moved to such acts of generosity charity and compassion as we engage in.

The vivid narrative of Jesus’ birth helps us to enter fully into the process of salvation. As God comes to us in the form of a baby we are able to embrace the babe and delight in the closeness of such contact. For some of the men here this might be rather difficult to imagine. Yet for the women the birth of a baby, the cuddling of the infant offers a contrast which is nothing short of the miraculous. But the real miracle is that in this human story the Divine nature and personhood of God dwelt. More so in that there was no regal majesty or royal court surrounding this particular birth. No! The birth of Jesus was ordinary simple lowly and in most ways unheralded. Unheralded that is except to Joseph, Mary the shepherds and the magi who were later to arrive. The angelic messenger had previously appeared to Mary to announce God’s plan and somewhat later to Joseph to calm his anxieties and encourage him to be steadfast to his vows concerning Mary.

But it was the night of the birth of Jesus that today’s readings would have us bring to mind. The angelic announcement to shepherds in the field not only shows the humility of the birth narrative but also would be an indicator of Jesus’ lineage in the house of David. Israel’s greatest king was of course David and we will recall that he was in the fields tending the sheep when Samuel came to anoint God’s chosen successor to Saul. From such a lowly and unassuming station in life was he to become great. It seems therefore most appropriate that the first witnesses to the greatest leader should be the shepherds.

And there is no denying the greatness of this infant for we are told that the angelic message referred to the infant as Saviour Messiah and Lord. No doubt Luke’s mention of the Emperor August in the birth narrative was not just about historicity but also to set as a foil for Jesus’ true identity. Augustus had appropriated unto himself the titles of Saviour and God’s Son the bringer of peace and liberator of the world. Yet in Luke’s own time the fallacy of Augustus’ arrogant belief was proven to all. Over against this false emperor Luke identifies Jesus as the real Saviour the real Deliverer and the real king, who would fulfil the prophecies of old and issue in a new dawn for God’s people. But this new dawn would not be in the vision which Israel had hoped. Their vision of a return to Davidic times and glory was not God’s vision and so much disappointment would be experienced.

It would not be until after the resurrection would the eyes of retrospection enable people to bear witness to who Jesus really was and only at that point could a celebration of his birth be truly felt and experienced. We gave been the heirs of all the experiences of those who have felt the true nature of Jesus’ birth and we are called to not just celebrate the historic event but to actively remember and live the relationship god has wrought in that particular birth. May we be able to go forth this night and morning rejoicing in the birth of our Saviour and living in the relationship God has joined in us.

Amen