Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)
The church office has been very quiet for the past two weeks, which puzzles me since Christmas is such a busy time for those of us involved in worship. For instance, we had an inter-generational service last Sunday, a Longest Night Service on Monday evening, and now two special Christmas Eve services.
And yet in the office, all was calm, all was bright . . .
The quiet in the office brought to my mind that age-old question — just what is Christmas about? It’s the same question that anguishes Charlie Brown in the clip we showed earlier from the 1965 animated TV show “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
His friend Linus answers it by reading part of the birth narrative of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. The true meaning of Christmas, Linus reminds us, is the birth of Jesus.
I agree with Linus. But I think there is a more to Christmas than just the birth of Jesus. Nor do I see a need to focus on only one reason for the season or only one true meaning for Christmas.
Even in 1965, when I was eight years old, I was aware of the pull between the different sides of Christmas. And it was another new production that year that helped me think about this — the “The Sound of Music.” Like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the popular film version of that musical was released in 1965.
Our class choir sang “My Favourite Things” from “The Sound of Music” in a school concert that December. It is appropriately wintry because of lyrics such as: “bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens . . . door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles . . . and silver white winters that melt into springs.” But there is nothing religious in the song.
When I saw the movie, I continued to be puzzled by the role of religion. The heroine, Maria, was a Roman Catholic nun. But the hero, Captain Von Trapp — with his stern outlook and military-style discipline for his seven children — seemed more “religious” to me than the free-spirited nun and her delight in everything sensual and earthy.
This begs the question, of course, what it means to be religious. As a child, I had absorbed the idea that to be religious was to be uptight and pious. So I was glad that Charlie Brown and Maria von Trapp helped us see other possible answers to the question.
Linus brings the story of Jesus into the 1965 animated TV show. But the jazz music, the skating party, and the decorations for the tree show the more secular side of the season as well.
In “The Sound of Music,” the nuns and the convent bring the church into the musical. But overall, it is a secular love story that focuses on the joys of family life. And personally, I enjoy Christmas best when it combines elements from both secular and religious sources.
People have always celebrated at the winter solstice. The moment when the earth’s orbit around the sun brings it to its most extreme tilt away from the northern hemisphere is the closest astronomy can come to marking the end of one solar year and the beginning of another.
These days in late December when the hours of sunlight start to increase again are an occasion for joy and hope. But our celebrations are shadowed by the fact that the coldest time of the year still lies ahead of us in late January.
For this reason, December always brings with it both hope and dread, and something similar happens in the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew, I think.
In Luke’s version of the story, Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary are forced to travel at their peril from Nazareth to Bethlehem by the occupying Roman Empire. In Matthew’s version, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee Bethlehem to Egypt because of a murderous campaign unleashed against Bethlehem by King Herod.
In both stories, God’s healing light comes to earth in the form of a helpless newborn. They are stories of great hope and yet this hope rests in the most fragile vessel possible, an infant.
Nothing in the two narratives of the birth of Jesus suggests a time of year. But it makes sense to me that the early church placed Christmas in late December just after the winter solstice. People were already celebrating the return of the sun and the start of a new year. Why not add a celebration of the birth of Jesus with its fragile hope on top of this?
Christmas has thus always been a mixture of elements. It is is part of the charm of the season, but sometimes it can confuse us.
A few weeks ago, I was surprised to learn from Rev. Sandy Ferguson of Strathearn United Church that Christmas was barely celebrated in his native Scotland when he was a boy. In fact, Christmas was not even a state holiday in Scotland until 1958.
I should have known this since my roots are Scottish and northern Irish – Presbyterian through and through. But I only know about Puritan and Presbyterian disapproval of Christmas from the history of the English Civil War of the 1640s.
I am glad that the Puritanism of my ancestors has withered away and that we have not only worship services focused on the birth of Jesus, but also family gatherings, the exchange of gifts, decorative lights, and parties of all kinds.
I don’t like Christmas celebrations that deny the tough aspects of the stories of Jesus’ birth or of winter. But when we can be with our families and neighbours awake to both what blesses and what burdens us about them; when we can celebrate the return of the light without denying the difficulty of the winter that lies ahead; when we can engage in extravagant acts of charity and kindness without denying the social problems that cause poverty at home and refugee crises abroad; and when we can celebrate the coming of God in the form of a baby without denying the fragility of this hope; then I can embrace all the reasons for the season with great joy.
So this is Christmas, a big mash-up of the religious and secular, of the sacred and the profane, and of everything in between.
My hope is that we will make it a good one regardless of whether our celebrations focus on the divine light of God born in Bethlehem or on family meals and secular parties.
Light is returning the world and tonight Jesus is born again within us. The past year, filled with its blessings and disappointments, is behind us. The new year, filled with the infinite promise of God’s healing love lies ahead.
This is Christmas Eve 2015, and so in the peace of this blessed evening, I say with great hope, joy and love: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!