A sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2010 by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill
Merry Christmas, everyone! What a beautiful night this is – and what a lovely sight it is to stand here and look out at all of your faces. Hopefully the “rat race” (as I heard one person calling it this week) has now come to an end, and we can all take in a great big, deep breath, and let the reality of this holy moment enter into the deepest places of our hearts and our minds.
You just might have noticed, as I have, that there’s a lot of anxiety in our society about the meaning of Christmas and where we put our focus. Zealous Christians worry about it becoming too secular and commercial. Secular folks and some people of other religious backgrounds worry about it being too religious for our multi-cultural society and our “separation of church and state” constitution. I read this past week that a new USA Today/Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults found just over half of them (51 percent) say they see Christmas as "strongly religious," (which was actually up from 40 percent in 1989). And yet fewer than half (47 percent) will attend church tonight or tomorrow. Most will commemorate the time with gift-giving, spending time with friends and family, and decorating the house.
Most of us – even if we really, really love Christmas and all that goes along with it – have complained at one time or another about some aspect of our contemporary celebrations of Christmas – the over-commercialization, the excessive patterns of consumption and materialism it seems to encourage – the emphasis on the confusing array of stories about Santa Claus and elves and reindeer and Frosty the snowmen that can obscure its sacred meaning. And when we do complain like this, we are usually measuring it against some idealized image of how Christmas must surely have been in the past.
BUT… it turns out, our idealized images of how Christmas must have been celebrated in some purer, more pristine time probably are, well, a bit of fantasy.
In his book, “The Battle for Christmas” Stephen Nissenbaum says that "There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority… It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize."
Christmas was not even part of the church's liturgical calendar for the first few centuries. Let’s not forget that only two of the four gospels contain any reference at all to the story of Jesus’ birth. It just doesn’t seem to have been a terribly significant part of the Christian story at first, and only gradually did it become important as the Church in those first centuries more sharply defined the meaning of the incarnation and the person of Christ.
December 25 wasn’t set as the date for the birth of Christ until the mid fourth century. It was the golden-tongued St. John Chrysostom in the late fourth century whose Christmas Day sermon offers us a glimpse into some of the profound meaning that began to be attributed to this simple story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. I’ll share here a brief sample of his homiletical wonderment:
BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.
And yet, in spite of the golden tongue that moves us still, it remained the case for hundreds of years that Christmas was celebrated primarily as a festival of revelry and excesses of food and drink, echoing its association with an earlier pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia and the rites of the winter solstice.
Not surprisingly, such associations led the Protestant reformers of the 16th century to cast a very skeptical eye on Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took over England in the 17th century, they banned Christmas. The restoration of the monarchy brought a restoration of Christmas revelry, but the Puritans who came to America as Pilgrims didn't buy into it, and Christmas was banned in many places in the colonies, including right here in Massachusetts and in this very town of Andover.
Even after the American Revolution, Christmas had little importance. It would surprise some of our politicians today to know that Congress was in session on Dec. 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new Constitution, and Christmas wasn't made a federal holiday until after the Civil War, in 1870, only 140 years ago. The establishment of a national holiday was, at least in part, an act of reconciliation with the South, where the far less Puritanical folks had always celebrated Christmas. And they did so, as one commentator recently said, “with a degree of excess that might make ancient Romans -- not to mention [certain contemporary southern politicians who have been feeling very sanctimonious about Congress working right up to Christmas] -- blush.”
The modern Christmas that we so often wax nostalgic about was really an invention of the mid-1800s, thanks to writers like Washington Irving and his Christmas tales and Irving's friend Clement Clark Moore, who gave us "The Night Before Christmas." Those stories in turn inspired England's Charles Dickens to write "A Christmas Carol" (1843), featuring Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim and the rest, and cementing the Victorian standard of the familiar, though hardly religious, Christmas we know today. Even most of our familiar Christmas carols – the religious ones – we sing today, are creations of the English and German traditions coming from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries – many of them from the period roughly when this parish was founded. Not very ancient at all, it turns out. Much of what we sentimentalize as the traditional Christmas – the Currier and Ives images, the shopping and gift giving – is the product of shrewd New York gilded age commercialism that saw an opportunity for extending profits at the end of the year. And it is this Christmas that we have exported to virtually every corner of the globe, even to places, as Philbert told us last week, like Japan, where barely one percent of the population are Christians, and yet where Christmas is popular with millions of urban people.
At the same time, China’s churches were packed with people today. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes in his blog earlier today, I “Just came back from a really moving Christmas Eve service here in Xian, China. It was jammed, with some people waiting in line for 3 hours to get in. A crowd outside the church watched through windows and listened to hymns in the courtyard -- and on a cold night. So Merry Christmas from Xian.”
Now who would ever have thought that the religious observance of Christmas would be so widespread as it is in, of all places, China?
So, with all of this confusing array of celebrations or lack thereof, what kind of Christmas shall we keep? Or is it worth the fuss? Shall we keep it at all – just give it back to the revelers or turn it over to the profit-makers? Christmas can, apparently, be pretty much whatever we decide it will be. Christians have celebrated it and not celebrated it. And they have observed it in a thousand ways in different cultures and times, some of which charm us and some that repel us. It will surely be different in the future than it is now.
Well, I believe it is worth keeping, and here’s why.
The story we heard here tonight – that beautiful story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the story of shepherds and angels, emperors and governors – a story admittedly less history than theology – conveys a deep truth about God that is central to the Christian faith and the essence of why we celebrate Christmas at all. And that truth is that God is with us; that God is not remote or removed and far from us, but is near to us – as near as a baby is to its mother at the time of its birth. And that we find God in the most ordinary, the simplest, the humblest of people and places and events. And that this God is part of our reality and, it turns out, is in the places where people least expect. It’s a story that reminds us that God is no stranger to our human condition, but shares it with us, and in doing so redeems it, ennobles it, returns it to its intended dignity. “God became man,” as Augustine said, “so that we might become divine.”
Without this yearly reminder of just who God is for us, we would easily forget to look for God in the unlikely places. We might look only in the places and people that bear the marks of power and worldly success. We might be tempted to think that God (if God even exists) is far away and couldn’t possibly be concerned with us. We might forget that Jesus was born to reveal a truth that is always and everywhere true, that God does not hide from the dangers and the challenges of this world. And neither should we.
However else we choose to celebrate this Christmas, it is good that we are here this night, and remember this simple story, because it makes a difference in how we understand who God is, and who we are. So, let us “BEHOLD this new and wondrous mystery.” And let that mystery transform our hearts and minds, and open our eyes to the Light that has come into the world.