“Put Christ back into Christmas” is one sentiment that we often hear in the midst of the frenzy that leads us to December 25th. Another is “Jesus is the reason for the season.” That one makes me laugh. Most of our Christmas traditions have their root not in Christianity, not in the stories of Jesus, but in ancient traditions that celebrated the “return of the light”, that is, the lengthening of days after the winter solstice. Evergreens were used even by ancient Egyptians to symbolize the victory of life over death. Other cultures used it to point to the coming of spring. Druids in England and Germany used mistletoe in winter solstice observances. It was thought to symbolize the birth of a god.
Christmas, as we know it, does not come from Christianity – at least, not fully. Our forebearers in the faith took the ancient practices – ones that gave joy and structure to their lives – and Christianized them. We celebrate Christmas at this time of year because of the winter solstice, not because Jesus was actually born on December 25th. We have no idea when he was born! Christians said that the birth of Christ was a reminder of God’s light – so, setting a date to celebrate that birth when the days began to get longer made sense. For a long time, the church struggled with the idea that Christianity would be connected to these practices. After all, they, in their origins, did not point to Jesus. Jesus was not really the reason for the season. A human longing to stay connected to ancient practices was.
Eventually, the culture won – or, the traditions were adapted to become a means of proclaiming the good news of Jesus, the Christ. Think about some of the hymns. They reflect the northern realities of winter as much as they tell the story of Jesus. “The snow lay on the ground” one carol begins. “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” is the title of the carol Meg will sing for us soon. The theme of winter is metaphoric, not literal. It speaks about longing and hope for a change – initially a change of seasons, but in our carols, a change in the world’s prospects.
Does all of this mean that our celebrations of Christmas have no value? That, somehow, we are denying the faith when we observe Christmas?
No. “Put Christ back in Christmas” is that other phrase. Maybe it would be better to say, “Put Christ in Christmas.” It is not that we have to return to some ancient observance. It is always relevant to look for ways of making our discipleship, our faith central to the ways in which we live. We do that already in those practices and traditions that remind us to look at the needs of others during this holiday season. It is, perhaps, one of the best practices that surrounds us in the world. People who have no connection to the Christian faith go out of their way to make a difference in the lives of others during this season. Instead of complaining about the lack of emphasis on Jesus, maybe we should be ringing the bells and celebrating all the ways in which this season has been shaped by the spirit of generosity, the spirit of giving. In the church, we put Christ in Christmas in and through our faith based traditions that lead us to celebrate by growing in faith and by sharing in worship.
But, we can always do better. Perhaps, another way of putting Christ in Christmas is to hear the stories connected to the birth of Jesus more fully, more completely. The way Christmas has evolved, we tend to hear and celebrate the nice and sweet parts of the story. We present peaceful (and static) pictures of a baby in a manger with adoring folks gathered all around.
So, let’s re-visit the story. We’ll try to “un-decorate” it, that is, to take away the traditions that have shaped the way we hear it.
Nancy Rockwell wrote an article that I read during Advent. Her focus was on Mary’s story. It starts, “It’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.” Rockwell noted the centuries of tradition that have shaped how we perceive Mary. She suggests that the traditional portrayal of Mary as “meek, mild, and mindless” has been harmful. Rockwell looked at the story anew and saw elements that are often dismissed. “Greetings, favored one,” the angel said to her. She is full of grace. What does grace look like? Is it meekness and mildness? Or is there another portrait of what a woman full of grace might look like? Rockwell says that Luke’s description gives us a woman who is full of “courage, boldness, grit” and who has “convictions about justice.” Mary’s song is a powerful declaration of what God’s good news means for the world. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Rockwell says, “Grace is not submission. And the power of God is never meek.” Mary had to say “Yes” to God’s plan. It was not forced on her. Rockwell also notes that the traditional portrayals of Mary as a young girl are probably inaccurate. The description of her as a virgin is a mistranslation. The Greek word means not that she was a virgin, but that she had not born a child. She was unmarried. Rockwell wrote, “The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission of clergy –or her parents – to become pregnant. God knows Mary owns her own body. And there is no shame in her decision. Mary is good news for unwed mothers everywhere.”
Today’s gospel lesson leads us to a different way of encountering the story again. It is a jarring note in our observances. The only carol that I have ever found that addresses this particular part of Jesus’ birth narrative is the Coventry Carol that Meg sang as the prelude. The wise men had come to see Jesus. After they left, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee because of the threat from Herod. It is a horrifying story because it includes the senseless murder of innocent children. We are told that Herod, using the information from the wise men, had all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under killed, so that he might eliminate the threat of the one born King of the Jews.
Refugees are frequently in the news these days. The church, if it is to put Christ in Christmas, needs to remember and proclaim this part of Jesus’ story. Our Savior was driven out of his homeland by a threatened and threatening ruler. It has been pointed out that Jesus’ family is more faithfully portrayed by the modern images of refugees from the Middle East than most of our European styled Christmas pageants.
I fear that the assertion that Jesus is the reason for the season or that there is a need to put Christ back into Christmas represents a naive desire to return to simpler days. But there was nothing simple about the world into which Jesus was born. There was a woman who chose to have a child when such a choice set her at odds with all of the conventions of her day. I have always thought it interesting that the Christian Church harshly judged and judges unwed pregnant women. If we take the story seriously, Jesus was born to an unwed (engaged, but unwed) woman. (You can fudge that a little depending on how you understand the practices of engagement and marriage in those days.) Jesus was born in a country that was striving to live under foreign occupation – and the census, itself, bears witness to the harsh expectations of the ruling power. Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Galilee. In Luke’s story, this couple was forced to take refuge in the place reserved for animals – not the place of choice for the birth of a child! Then, in Matthew’s gospel, we have the actions of a petty leader who was so insecure he thought the birth of a child required a murderous response.
Today is the eighth day of Christmas. This is the shortest season in the liturgical year –lasting just twelve days, from December 25th to January 5th. Maybe it’s short so that we don’t get caught up in the world’s desire to take a story and make it so sweet it has lost its ability to connect with the world we know. We spend our Advent time focusing not on a past event, but an ongoing and a coming event – the coming of Christ into the world. Christmas invites us to reflect on the reality that God came to us as one of us, as Emmanuel. Yet, we do not dwell on the past, but look for ways of finding Emmanuel in the world we know.
I wish we would lose the “Jesus is the reason for the season” since it is often said as a way of judging how people are observing the season. I’m more comfortable with “Put Christ back in Christmas.” Yet, I think it, too, falls short. We don’t need to put Christ back in Christmas. Christ is there, whether we see him or not. What we need, instead, is to focus on being aware of Christ not only in Christmas, but throughout the year. It is not the baby we need, but the living Christ, known through the person Jesus, who faced, experienced, confronted and spoke to the difficult realities of human life. We need that Christ in our own lives. And the world needs to hear of that Christ in our words and deeds. We put Christ in our lives so that others may see in and through us the values, the love, the justice, the mercy, the compassion that he demonstrated during his earthly life.