GOOD NEWS FOR ALL PEOPLE
We come together to make music together, to create some harmony, to celebrate peace and hope, to pray together for a better world, and to re-connect with some place deep in our souls that seems to respond, child-like, to this magical time of year and the story of the divine becoming present in a very ordinary, human way.
Christmas is many things. It’s about light, fun, and fantasy (Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman); it’s about shopping and presents, special songs, food and feasting; it’s about cards and re-connecting, office parties, and gathering with family and loved ones; it’s about scrambling to get things done on time (and well), and wrapping (which I avoid like the plague – thank God for gift bags!). Though Advent reminds us to be quiet and centered, most of us experience an overwhelming blizzard of responsibilities and deadlines.
As Bart Simpson said: “Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know… the birth of Santa.” What is the “true” meaning of Christmas? When I googled the words “true meaning of Christmas”, I got 6,760,000 responses. There is a lot of variety, and what I find interesting is just how convinced each person is that their version of Christmas is the “true” one.
Some quote the Bible or say things like “Jesus is the reason for the season!”
For some – including you — it means going to church and taking part in an act of worship and liturgical spirituality. It means holding open a piece of ourselves that continues to wonder and quest and hope. Christmas is a time when our longings are revealed (for some, maybe in the way that our nerves are exposed when we go to the dentist).
For some Christmas is an act of nostalgia that they wish to re-visit or perhaps share with their children, because the meaning we hang on to often has to do with where we were when we were four or five years old. Christmas is always about home, somehow, which makes it painful for the various refugees among us whose sense of home was lost, or taken away or destroyed in some way.
For many, it has to do with a meal. I remember as a child being told we were going to have a Christmas dinner with some Eastern European friends of my parents. Accustomed to turkey, I asked “What do they have for Christmas dinner?” “Carp,” my father replied. Though I was temporarily horrified, the dinner, which included carp (none for me, thanks!), was a great feast of food and fellowship. As most Canadians do, we did have our own feast of turkey as well. But in Denmark, the true Christmas dinner might mean pork or goose; the Swedes traditionally have a kind of smorgasbord; in the Philippines you could expect ham; in Honduras, you might get tamales.
For some the true meaning gets expressed in acts of sharing and charity toward the poor and the marginalized. I think of our Food Bank dinner here last week. Over the past few days, I have encountered a number of folks who are part of our St. John’s Family Food Bank community in various places – grocery stores, etc – and it’s been a delight to see them – for us to recognize each other — and it’s been a reminder to me of how true charity means making the invisible visible.
The painful contrast between haves and have-nots seems to accompany the season. Many who want to express the true meaning of Christmas disapprove of the crass commercialization of the season and the pressure to buy things they can’t afford and don’t need. For some Christmas is nothing but obligations and a nuisance, a reminder of what they are not or never had. (I remember conducting a wedding rehearsal and the stressed-out bride expressing her frustration: “What has this got to do with Christianity?” “Almost nothing,” I said — “it’s all nice but it’s not the essence.” So why do we have to dress up like this?” I told her, “You don’t – you could be married in a burlap sack if you felt that was the most meaningful thing to do.”)
For me, while I enjoy all the lights, parties, trees, prezzies and food, the meaning of Christmas has to do with the birth of Jesus, and yet I recognize it is a birth shrouded in mystery, and open to ongoing interpretation. I interpret the significance of that birth as the growing awareness that in Jesus of Nazareth, the love of God has been expressed in a new way – it is the good news that the love of God is accessible to all, not just to a chosen few or to those who meet certain criteria of acceptability. It suggests that in Jesus, humanity discovers a new potential and purpose – that by God’s redeeming grace a transformation becomes possible. For me, Christmas involves continuing to attend to the stories told by Matthew and Luke, and remaining open to what they may reveal to us of the nature of God.
For some, there is great concern that Christmas is somehow being compromised when in fact it has never had more prominence than it has in our culture at this time in history. For many Christians, there is sadness, hurt, even anger, that Jesus seems to be left out of the picture, and the believing and faith aspects of Christmas are focused instead on Santa Claus, a fictional character (or elves, reindeer, snowmen, etc.). For others, Christmas can be a painful reminder of those domineering, arrogant forms of Christianity which have left many out in the cold.
That is where Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus might speak to us today. It’s ironic that people complain that the celebration of Christ’s birth is not triumphant enough, because according to Luke, the original event was nothing of the sort. Mary and Joseph were an obscure Jewish couple, little people who got pushed around by the powers that be (like most of us), giving birth with very little fanfare, and raising a child who would remain in obscurity for 30 years, but who would suddenly emerge with a message of love, peace, universal inclusion, and above all, the reality of God. Luke portrays a birth and a life that happens on the margins – on the borders. According to Luke, Christ is “down to earth,” God with us.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother Mary sings a song (we call it the Magnificat) which speaks of the powerful being toppled from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty-handed. It is a song of the marginalized, the humble, the ones the world tends to ignore. People lamenting our lack of impact on the world need to consider that the community Jesus originated was not in the first place rich and powerful and elitist. They were outsiders – even outlaws. So many of the stories Jesus told spoke of small and insignificant things (leaven, mustard seed) causing great things to happen. So many of the stories about Jesus show him breaking through the artificial barriers of race, religion, gender, age and social status, in order to bring compassion, understanding, and integration. What Jesus creates we call communion and that is what we hope to enter more deeply this evening.
When love becomes difficult, it is that Jesus I recall – the one who persisted through the injustice and inequity of the world, and the misunderstanding and hostility he encountered. It seems to me that, if we have found that love, we have found Christmas.
“There was no room for them in the inn” — “no room at the Hyatt” we might say today. It is Luke’s way of showing first of all the humbleness of the holy family, but also of pointing to how much resistance there is to the presence of God. Unlike banks, for instance, the church holds its doors open to the world as a reminder of the one whose parents could not close the world out – even to strangers – even to animals – and who ended up discovering that was a virtue, not a problem.
Luke’s vision of the Christ being born in a stable teaches us that we discover God in the most unlikely places: at work; on a bus; in a homeless shelter; in an encounter in a crowded grocery store; at home and within the general mess and confusion of our own lives — virtually everywhere – if we have the willingness to perceive it that way.
St. Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” In Luke, the angels proclaim “good news of great joy for all the people.” For all people – not just the powerful and the rich, or the select few, or the politically correct. Luke shows how the coming of Jesus appealed to ordinary, everyday folks by suggesting that his first visitors were shepherds, who were semi-nomadic, rather marginal figures, living apart and largely in poverty. He didn’t arrive as a king or high priest – he came as one of them, a son of man, as it were.One of the earliest words for the church was “ekklesia” which means “those called out.” The image of shepherds leaving their flocks makes us reflect on our own sense of calling. Do we wish to remain huddled with the sheep, or are we willing to allow the Gospel to pull us out of safety and conformity into our own unique life quest and spiritual journey?
For people in our part of the world, Christmas is an invitation to life at a dormant time of year and a reminder of light in the midst of the darkest time, a source of hope and an incentive toward compassion and new life. Luke’s Gospel says: it is often when things seem to be darkest that God will start to turn it around, and the message is: one child can make a difference; one child can make THE difference; YOU can make a difference.
My conclusion is that it’s almost impossible (and quite unwise) to define any one “true” meaning of Christmas and certainly for most of us its meaning is different each year, depending on our circumstances. Maybe God intended it to be that open-ended – that full of mystery and paradox – so that it could indeed be “good news for all people.” There’s room for everyone within the scope of this glad and gracious season, and to me, anything that increases good will and a sense of hope is a blessing to a world always too inclined to sectarianism and hostility. So, to quote Santa Claus, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Luke 3: 1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*