Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Makes People Crazy

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  St. Luke 2:10-11

Perhaps you’ve noticed that Christmas makes people crazy.  About a month ago, my neighbor affixed a two foot-tall stuffed antler on either side of her SUV and a red pom-pom the size of a basketball on her front grill.  She’s a very sensible person really, a German, for heaven’s sake, but—you know, it’s Christmas.   Only at Christmas do we get up on ladders to affix dozens of tiny lights to our down spouting.  It’s our only time for drinking out of vessels that look like a deer’s head or an elf’s boot.  Christmas is the only time quite a few of us would be caught dead singing in public.

It’s not just that we become silly at Christmas.  It’s also the season for generosity.  We remember to greet people at Christmas.  We set aside a little gift for so many of those folks that we usually take for granted: the poor fellow who delivers the newspaper so early in the morning, our children’s longsuffering teachers.  I heard a story on the radio last week about an anonymous man who went into two Walmarts in Cleveland and paid for everything on layaway.  He spent over $100,000 buying items from socks to big screen TVs for people struggling to get by.   And of course, he did it at Christmas. The official Walmart spokesman put it this way: “Christmas is a time of year when many people go above and beyond to give back to their neighbors and communities.  When customers anonymously pay off others’ layaway items we’re reminded of the amazing things people will do to support each other.”[1]

There’s something magical about this time of year, something that calls out the child that lies within us, and encourages us to try, if only for a day or two, to become our own best self.  A friend of mine, who is now a priest but who grew up in a rather secular home, describes the way he experienced Christmas before he came to faith in this way: “There was a magic and wonder to the whole thing that was not just about Santa Claus. It was not intellectual. It was an experience, a feeling even, almost imperceptible, that Christmas meant that the world could change. Christmas meant that old things would die, and something new and larger than life would be born. Christmas meant the beginning of the end of evil, as good was being born into the world.”[2]

I want to go on record, as a priest, to say how grateful I am for all of this magic and wonder that is often shot through the holiday experience.  We professional Christians sometimes get a reputation for being rather grumpy about the secular American Christmas.  Either we’re raising a furor about red Starbucks cups and public Nativity scenes, or we’re tut-tutting about crowded shopping malls and tacky Santa songs. 

But I think my friend is right.  Beneath all that seems so silly and maudlin and excessive there is a real longing for something beautiful and profound.  What if there could truly be peace on earth?  What if there could be strength in the midst of suffering, an authentic second chance for me and those I love?  What if poverty was really made history and the ancient divisions between races and peoples really healed?  What if God loved us so much that He would bend down to touch us, when a tiny infant reached out his hand to touch his mother’s face?  You know how the carol says it, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”[3] 

One of the central claims that we Christians make about this child, Jesus the Christ, our Lord, is that He has come to fulfill the deepest longings of all people.  In our Old Testament lesson, a prophecy made many centuries before His birth, God promised through Isaiah that He would send a new kind of ruler to the Jewish people.  He would be full of wisdom and completely just, with the power to bring light into the dark places of the world and establish universal peace.  For centuries the Jews prayed that God would send Him soon, this promised Savior, the Christ.  He was the theme of many of their most beautiful songs.  In the temple old men and women fasted day and night hoping that they would live to see His day.

And when an angel appeared to a virgin named Mary in Nazareth, some nine months before the event we celebrate today, he assured her that the day had come.  Through her child, the miracle coming to life in her womb, God was answering His people’s steadfast hope.  Israel’s great and final king was coming.

But, as so often in God’s way of doing things, it would all go a bit off script from there.  In every miracle of grace there are a few surprises.  This poor young woman, Mary and her husband-to-be, Joseph would get caught in a nationwide census, and were forced to move miles from home.  There would be no place in the palace for the new king, not even a bed in a properly appointed inn.  Instead His first cry would come from the stable, among the cattle and sheep, and she would lay His head in the manger, bundled tightly against the cold. 

The news would not be sounded first in the palace or even in the temple, though it would get there too, soon enough.  God would send word instead to shepherds, ten thousand angels filling the sky with light and song.  Shepherds.  They don’t usually pass the time drilling each other on the catechism.  The boozy eggnog and ugly sweater crowd to be sure, those shepherds.  This Savior would be for them as well.    “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people,” the angel would say.  All people, not just the pious, not just those who’ve known the story all their lives, not just those who’ve scrubbed up and made themselves presentable. To you, even to you, is born this day, in the city of David, a savior.

For you he is born.  Something much like that would in time be perceived by wise men, hundreds of miles away.  Scanning the stars, they also learned that this child would fulfill their hopes and dreams.  They were Gentiles, people like most of us, who didn’t know the words of the prophets.   But they set out anyway, and when they had found Him, they knew He was just what they had been looking for all along.  “The grace of God has come,” Saint Paul summarizes in our Epistle lesson, bringing salvation to all.” 

The One who lies in the manger, you see, has come to bring us back to God.  He has come to teach us the way of love, and to lay down His life to make peace between God and sinful humanity.  He has come to defeat the power of death, to heal sickness and to plant in people’s hearts a deep and abiding joy that nothing can take away.  And at the right time, He will return, to raise up all things and make them perfect as God has always intended.

When you’ve come to know and believe in Him, it might well make you a little crazy.  We call it the Christmas spirit, that transforming power that fills us with the wonder and delight of children, this compulsion to extravagant generosity, this sense that the world really is being made new.  But it’s meant to be the pattern for all of us, all the time, not just in December.   The voices stirring up fear and anger around us seem to be so loud, and we can be taken in by their claims that power and violence rule the day.  But this Child promises something different, and the kingdom he rules will ultimately triumph. 

So, by all means, be a little silly tonight.  Sing loud enough that your wife wonders what got into you.  Wear those twinkling socks and have that second glass of eggnog.  Do something extravagantly generous to bless the poor and lift the spirits of that suffering person God has placed in your life.  Because this Child has made all things new.  He pours out His love abundantly, and deep and lasting joy is His precious gift. 

[1] Durando, Jessica.  “Layaway Angel Pays Off More Than 106k at Walmart Stores.”  USA Today.  16 Dec. 2015.
[2] Mitchican, Jonathan.  “Stop Being Jerks about Christmas.”  Covenant.  15 Dec. 2015.
[3] Hymn 79, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” 1982 Hymnal.

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