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Capturing the True Spirit of Christmas

It seems this year there’s even more talk than usual about how over-commercialized Christmas has become. At the same time, there seems to be a concurrent sense of appreciation--a strong, favorable reaction--to things that seem to capture the true spirit of Christmas.

Several years ago, when I wrote a column for the local paper, someone wrote in this time of year to say how they really want to feel “the Christmas spirit” but have had an increasingly harder time seeing through the malls and the parties and the pressures of the season. “Christmas morning seems like it’s all focused on presents,” they said, and “I don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but am I the only one who is glad when Christmas is finally over?”

I’m grateful that our Personal Finance Ministry has been running a series called “Finding Christ in a Simpler Christmas,” and this week’s installment featuring “The Four Things Children Really Want for Christmas” is particularly appropriate, because as I said in my response to that reader in my column, these kinds of feelings are common. For almost every year I’ve been in parish ministry, I’ve conducted a workshop called “Unplug the Christmas Machine,” based on the book by that title, and I’ve heard hundreds of people express similar frustrations: “Christmas has become too commercial….too materialistic…too pressured.”

In the words of Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli, co-authors of that book, “Christmas has become a long and elaborate preparation for an intense gift-opening ritual.”

I think it’s very helpful to remember something: it wasn’t always this way.

As little as fifty years ago, Christmas in this country was celebrated much like we now celebrate Thanksgiving: a peaceful, gentle, non-materialistic holiday centered around food and family.

Did you know that for hundreds of years, right up until the mid 1900s, people did not begin preparing for Christmas until about mid-December, gift-giving was minimal or not at all, and they celebrated December 25 as the first day of Christmas, Christmas being understood as a season starting on December 25 and lasting right through January 6, which is the “twelfth day of Christmas,” or the Feast of the Epiphany? And that Christmas is still celebrated this way in many other parts of the world outside the United States?

Today, here, everything is backed up and pressurized: we get our first catalogs in the mail about mid-October, we’re being told now--December 3!--to HURRY IN and get our shopping done and electronics ordered.

So part of me laments how our culture’s twin gods of Consumption and Entertainment so easily distract us from the Lord God made known to us that first Christmas.

But another part of me doesn’t want to sound like Scrooge, or worse, a “Pastor Lindley.”

Pastor Lindley, you may recall, is the fictional character in Phillip Gully’s book, Christmas in Harmony:

“Though he was nice, Pastor Lindley had a few alarming tendencies, chief among them his sermons encouraging us to remember the reason for Christmas--that it wasn’t about presents and cookies, but about God sending his Son to be with us,” Gully writes.

“I feared my parents might take his message to heart. I had nightmares about running down the stairs on Christmas morning to a tree with nothing under it, and my father sitting in his chair, a Bible balanced on his lap, smiling and saying, ‘Your mother and I have decided that this year we’re just going to thank God for the gift of his Son, because that’s the only gift we really need.’”

So perhaps there is a third way, a way that helps us avoid the empty commercialism, entertainment, and hurry, and yet does not turn us into Pastor Lindleys or Scrooges.

I hope to explore this more in this week’s and next week’s sermons, but let me say for now that finding the third way begins by remembering that the first Christmas was full of hustle and bustle, too.

We tend to romanticize the manger scene, making it part of a fairy tale celebration where Jesus, Joseph and Mary live happily ever after. But read the story as it is presented in the Bible: a young, confused girl gives birth to her first child far away from home. That child is understood to be God--God himself--entering the world, NOT in might or power or full-grown majesty, but as a naked, newborn, vulnerable infant. And shortly after the birth, Joseph and Mary must hurry from Bethlehem and flee to Egypt because a paranoid king, frightened that his monopoly on power is at stake, is plotting their child’s massacre.

And yet--the angels call that same story “good news of a great joy.”

Why?

It’s because God is near.

We rejoice at Christmastime NOT because we’ve had a good year, NOT because of the gifts we give or receive, not even because we’re surrounded by loved ones.

We rejoice at Christmas because God is near, God is in the middle of all our circumstances, relationships, and events.

The good news of Christmas is that God was born not in the Ritz-Carlton of his day--a beautiful, clean, well-prepared space--but in a feeding trough in a manger. In other words, the good news of Christmas is that God comes to us not because of all our elaborate preparations and activities, but in the hidden, darker, danker places and moments of this season.

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