Celebrating Two Christmases
December 12, 2004
Christmas is a cultural phenomenon. It is also a religious event. There is a great advantage in keeping the similarities and the differences between these two Christmases clear. That is why today I want to spend a few moments comparing and contrasting cultural Christmas with religious Christmas.
Cultural Christmas has a tremendous impact on all of our lives, certainly an economic one. Without increased Christmas sales most retailers would not be able to survive. Yet the influence of cultural Christmas is not limited to money, for it also conveys to our society a set of spiritual beliefs. People who do not believe in Jesus or even in God are nevertheless influenced by cultural Christmas. At this time of year they feel the increased importance of family, an invitation to be more generous, and a general feeling of hope. Whenever we listen to a cultural Christmas song or watch a T.V. special it is likely that these spiritual values will be present, inviting us to care for one another, to work for peace, to make the world a better place. If you go and see the movie The Polar Express you will hear the admonition: “never forget the magic the mystery of Christmas.” The movie is encouraging us to be the best people, the most loving people we can be. Now are these spiritual beliefs of cultural Christmas valuable? Absolutely. Should we as believers espouse them? Certainly.
But here is where the difference between cultural and religious Christmas comes into focus. We as believers espouse more about Christmas than what cultural Christmas would propose. We believe that Christmas is more than just us loving one another. It is God loving us. We believe that the most important thing about Christmas is not about what we do or should do, but about what God has done and continues to do. In other words, we believe in the Incarnation. That truth of our faith that tells us that God took up a human nature; that God became one of us; that God became Savior for the world. That primacy of what God did and continues to do in our lives is at the heart of religious Christmas. It certainly is reflected in all the scriptures. Today’s scriptures would be a good example. Isaiah says, “God is coming to save us.” The letter of James says, “The Lord is near.” And in Matthew’s gospel we see John the Baptist presented as “the one who is preparing the way of the Lord.” The scriptures see the action of God as primary, and that action is certainly at the heart of religious Christmas.
So you can see by this explanation that the relationship between cultural Christmas and religious Christmas is not simple. It is complex. The two are not opposed to one another because both are promoting peace, forgiveness, and love among people. And yet religious Christmas believes more, for it believes in the centrality of God’s action, which cultural Christmas does not include.
Here is where the real advantage of being a person of faith emerges. When we approach Christmas from a religious perspective there is more potential for joy and love. For if all Christmas is about is us loving one another, forgiving one another, working for peace in our world; then, as beautiful as those motivations are, there is not really much hope. Because if the mystery of Christmas depends upon our ability to produce it – the future is not bright. We are really not that good at loving or at forgiving. Look at the world in which we live: how many places are characterized by hatred, by war, by violence. Look how we struggle even to forgive the people who are close to us; how we move along trying to make our lives work among the brokenness of our relationships and the stresses within our own family. As much as we desire love, and forgiveness, and peace, if accomplishing those things rest in our hands only – there is not much reason for optimism. But when we adopt the religious aspect of Christmas, everything changes. For if God has become one of us; if the Word has become flesh; if God continues to work in our midst to bring about love and reconciliation and peace; then the whole burden is not simply upon us. Then we trust that God is active, and where God is active what is impossible becomes possible. When God is active in our world, then despite all of our shortcomings, there is reason for hope.
So I encourage you to embrace the values of cultural Christmas. Go out and see The Polar Express. Look forward to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Be thankful for your Christmas cards that have Frosty the Snowman on them. They all point to the magic, to the warmth, to the love of this season. But, if you really want magic and warmth and love; then be thankful that you are a believer. Be thankful that you believe in God who is active in our world. If God became flesh, if God is Emmanuel, then the promises of Christmas are much more likely to happen. If God continues to act in our world and in our life, then despite all of our shortcomings we can be confident. Then we cannot only sing about a Christmas of magic, of warmth, and of love, but with God’s help we can find it and live it.
Changing With John
December 16, 2007
It is only a week until Christmas and therefore the witness of John the Baptist is more important than ever. Probably the greatest gift of John the Baptist’s witness is his ability to change, his ability to refocus his expectations, to let what he wants go and to accept what God gives. We see John doing that in today’s gospel. In most of the passages of scripture concerning John, he is confident that Jesus is the Messiah and he proclaims this good news to others. But today’s gospel is different.
In today’s gospel John is not so sure. For some reason it seems John was expecting a different kind of Messiah. To express his doubt and his disappointment he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” That is like saying, “I had something else in mind. Now I am thinking I should wait for someone else.” Look how Jesus responds. He does not attack John. He does not defend himself. He simply points to the undeniable great things that are happening in his ministry. Jesus says, “Maybe you were expecting something else. Maybe you wanted someone more challenging or more aggressive, someone who would make a bigger splash. But look: the blind can see, the lame can walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed are you if you can see it. Blessed are you if you do not take offense that the Messiah who you were expecting is not me. Blessed are you if you can let go of what you were hoping and claim the good things that God is doing through me.”
Now we have every reason to believe that John was able to let go and accept Jesus as the Christ. Many of us might have to follow the example of John as Christmas approaches. Because of all the times of the year, none places more expectations upon us than Christmas. We have expectations of what Christmas should be that go all the way back to our childhood. We want it to be a calm and joyful season. We want our gifts to be perfect. We want our family to be at peace. We want our hearts to be filled with love and hope.
There is nothing wrong with any of these expectations. But from year to year life does not always cooperate. If we are worried about our job or our future, it is hard to have a heart that is filled with joy and hope. If we are dealing with the loss of someone in death or a serious illness that is affecting someone whom we love, we do not have the energy or the desire for Christmas shopping or for celebrations with family and friends. When our families are marked with anger or divorce, it is unlikely that we will find peace under our Christmas tree.
In those circumstances we can feel very much like John the Baptist. We can ask Christ, “Is this really the Christmas that I have to celebrate this year? I would prefer to wait for another.” Jesus in his own patient way responds, “Yes, this is what Christmas is this year. But I hope that you can see the good things that are still happening in your life. Blessed are you, if you can see them. Blessed are you, if you do not take offense that the Christmas you expected is not the one you will receive. Blessed are you, if despite your worries and your fears, you can still be thankful because of your family, your health, your friends, your home. I know that you wanted more. I know that you expected it to be different. But if you can find the good things that are present in your life, they will be enough.”
The good news about Christmas is that it does not need to meet our expectations. It does not have to be big. It does not have to be the same as it was ten years ago, or even last year. It does not have to compare to anybody else’s Christmas. At the heart of this season is the good news that God comes to us. And God comes to us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, even if they are ones that we were not expecting. For many of us, then, it is important to follow the example of the Baptist. We must let go of what we were expecting and accept what has been given. We must forget the things we cannot have and claim the good things in our life that are ours. If we can do that, if we can claim the blessings that God has indeed given us, we will find Christ. And if we find Christ, we will find Christmas.
So let us find him and rejoice.
Presenting the Mess
December 15, 2013
The message of Advent is clear: Christ is coming. And, if Christ is coming, Christ is coming to us. So how do we respond to this news? Let me put it this way. What if you were to receive a text message from Jesus that says, “I’m on my way. I’ll be at your house by 8:00 tonight.” What would you do? Well I think most of us would prepare for Jesus’ arrival as we would for any other guest. We would want to make sure that our house was in order. We would not want Jesus to come in and see clothes lying on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink. We would rush around trying to clean up the mess. And, if you are like me, you might have in your house a closet that that is very helpful when guests arrive, a closet in which you can hide the mess, in which you can throw all the old magazines and junk lying around and then close the door. Then when the guests come in everything is neat and orderly. The last thing you want your guest to see is the junk you have hidden in the closet.
But Jesus is not an ordinary guest. Jesus is not coming to us to see our clean house and orderly lives. Jesus, unlike other guests, is coming for the mess. This becomes clear in today’s gospel as Jesus describes his ministry to the disciples of John. He says that he is about making the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers clean. Jesus is not coming for the neat and orderly. Jesus is coming for the wounded and the broken. When Jesus comes into our life he is interested in the mess. He wants to see what we have in the closet, because his mission is to fix and heal.
If this is the reason that Jesus is coming to us, we should not be afraid to show him the brokenness of our lives. Our role as the host is to show him our grief and our anger, our loneliness and our loss. We need to allow Jesus to touch our wounds, and, as to a doctor say, “Here is where it hurts.” It is only when we show Christ our fear, our selfishness, our prejudice, that he is able to change us. Today’s second reading from James is clear and confident: the coming of Christ is at hand. Since Christ is coming, we should be ready to welcome him not by hiding our hurt but by setting it out, not by covering our brokenness but by exposing it to Christ’s love.
Let us then together raise our voices in expectation.
Come Lord Jesus.
Welcome to my life.
Here is the mess.
Wild Like John
December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Matthew 11:2-11
John the Baptist was a wild man. It is important to remember this in order to answer the question that Jesus poses in today’s gospel. Jesus asks the crowds who went out to see John, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” They did not go out to see a reed swayed by the wind. The desert was filled with such reeds. They were commonplace. They did not go out to see someone dressed in fine garments. That is the way someone who was announcing a royal Messiah would be expected to dress. John dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. People went out into the desert to see John because John was unexpected, extraordinary, and peculiar. John was indeed a sign pointing to Jesus. But John was not the common yellow diamond with a black arrow pointing, “Straight ahead.” John was a movable billboard with blinking lights, whistles, and illuminated letters that spelled out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” People went out into the desert to see John because John was unanticipated and somewhat bizarre.
I think the example of John the Baptist is meant to remind us that if we are going to point to Jesus, we must be willing to do so in a wild and surprising way. We cannot fade back into our culture. Like John, we must seize the attention of others in a way that is powerful and unexpected. Now, there are many ways to do this. But the way that I suggest to you today is with an attitude of joy. In our culture, joy has the ability to shock people. In a world that is all too often characterized by worry, fear, and anger, a person of joy stands out like a flashing billboard in the desert.
You and I have reason for joy. We believe that God has made us and saved us. We believe that God has blessed us in many ways. When we look at the ways that we are blessed, we should rejoice. Today’s first reading from Isaiah says, “Those that the Lord has ransomed will return singing, crowned with everlasting joy.” I believe that we know how blessed we are, but how often do we allow the joy within us to be seen?
The holidays place extra burdens on us and often exhaust us. There is so much to do. But what if we made it our high priority to live a joyful December. What if, when we gather with our family and friends, the first thing that we say is not, “Let me take your coat,” or “Put the gifts over there.” What if we were to choose to look into the eyes of the people we love and say, “How good it is to see you. It has been much too long.”
What if we went to work not only focused on copying papers and making phone calls, but with the intention of telling a story or two of something that made us happy and thereby spread happiness to others? What if, even in difficult circumstances, in circumstances of grieving, sickness, or loss, we made it our aim to point out something beautiful or blessed between us, and thereby provided an opportunity to smile and celebrate?
If we were bearers of joy to others, would we not stand out like a prophet in the wilderness? And would we not most efficiently point to Jesus? Because I believe that after we have lifted the spirits of others and laughed with them, the people we left behind will say to themselves, “I do not what or who that person knows that I don’t know. I do not know where they find such joy. But I would really like to find out!”
The Doubt of John the Baptist
December 15, 2019
Matthew 11: 2-11
What has happened to John the Baptist? Last week, he was boldly proclaiming in the desert that Jesus was coming. He was saying that Jesus was mightier than he, and that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But the John in today’s gospel seems a very different man. Arrested by Herod, John seems to question whether Jesus is the Messiah after all. He sends his disciples to Jesus with the question “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a huge change in perspective. Instead of proclaiming Jesus, John is questioning Jesus. The herald who was so bold and confident is now tentative and shaken. It seems that John the Baptist has doubts.
The important thing in today’s gospel, however, is not the doubt of John the Baptist but how Jesus responds to it. When Jesus hears John’s question, he does not attack or demean John for asking it. He does not criticize John for his lack of faith. Instead, Jesus accepts John and tries to lead him to the truth. He asks John to see and hear the good things that are around him: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. Jesus is hoping that if John can recognize all the goodness that is flowing from Jesus’s ministry, he will be able to set his doubt aside and believe in Jesus again. Jesus responses to John by understanding his doubt and continuing to love him as one of his own.
Sometimes you and I, like John the Baptist, doubt God’s goodness. When there is a crisis in our family and we see the people we love treating one another as enemies, we ask: “How can God let this happen? Does God really care?” When someone who is important to us is diagnosed with a fatal disease or taken from us in death, we say, “Doesn’t God know how important these people are to me? Why did not God protect them?” When we look at the corruption, violence, and the injustice in our world, we can begin to doubt whether God is really committed to us and whether we can trust God’s promise of life and joy. Sometimes our doubts are compounded by embarrassment. We are ashamed that our faith is so weak and that our questions run so deep.
When we start to feel this way, it is important to remember Jesus’s response to John the Baptist. Jesus treats us in the same way. He does not criticize us for our lack of faith. He does not reject us, but understands our questioning and tries to lead us to life. He asks us to look at the good things around us, the blessings that we still have in our families, in our relationships, and in our world. Jesus is hoping that if we truly see the good things that we still possess, we can quiet our doubt and believe in him.
Jesus is not shaken by our doubt. He is not offended by our questioning. When we believe in him, he loves us. When we struggle to believe in him, he loves us still. We are always his own, even when we doubt his love. And it is through his love that we can believe again.