There are a lot of ways the modern mind can take the title of this piece. One could take it to mean that Christmas is ancient. One article I saw on the Internet started with the statement that Christmas celebrations go back four thousand years, which obviously pre-dates Christ's birth, so they are talking about something else. It could mean that Christmas is getting tiresome, and certain aspects of the secular celebration of the season surely are getting very tiresome. It could also simply mean that I am getting old, and Christmas is growing old with me.
It could mean that the holiday is of long standing, which is certainly true of Christmas. I have seen thirty-three as a pastor, and sixty-three in my life. The holiday itself dates back to the third century (the 200's), although it was not called "Christmas" at first but a festival (or celebration) of the Nativity, or birth of Christ. It has been (and still is) celebrated on a number of different days, for a number of different reasons. Some believe that someone originally calculated the date of Christmas from the date they believe Mary was visited by the angel (in March). Some believe it was instituted to compete with the pagan Saturnalia - a celebration of the return of the sun and of summer, marking the passing of the winter solstice when the days would now begin to lengthen into summer again.
The debates about why the date is set as it is in our society and others reflects the debate between the world and the Church. The world sees a holiday for partying and cheer of one sort or another, and the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus, the very Son of God come into the flesh (the Incarnation) for our salvation.
The world sees the myth - Santa, reindeer, magical snowmen, elves. That is all they are really interested in. Almost every mention of Jesus in the public square in connection with this holiday in these days is an attempt at manipulation. Someone is trying to sell something, and hopes that bringing the name of our Lord into their ads or appeals will find a responsive chord in the heart of Christians.
Even in the Church, such as it is on earth these days, fewer and fewer see the Incarnation of God. They see nostalgia, or the miracle birth. Many so-called Christian churches no longer believe in the Incarnation, or miracles, or the Virgin Birth, or Jesus, really. They use our shared religious language to say other things and to preach something quite different. The idea that the very Son of God took on human flesh and blood and human nature (except for the sin) and became a male human individual on Christmas is too superstitious for them. It is also too sexist and offensive on so many levels against other religions and philosophies which so many so-called Christian churches are trying to say are just as real and relevant and meaningful as our religion. This is where I want to remind you of that old axiom: "Anything you can say about everything means nothing.".
The Incarnation was awaited for so long. It is a pity people let it go today. It was awaited long before the time of Christ - nearly four thousand years. They waited so long, in fact, that even the people of God began to doubt that it would ever come. That He would ever come. We know that Adam and Eve were waiting. We know that by the name of her first-born son. His name meant, "I have gotten a man, the Lord". She mis-identified Cain, but she was expressing her faith and her sense of anticipation none-the-less.
Abraham was waiting. He knew that when He came, that special offspring, all mankind would be blessed in Him. Isaac was waiting, and gave the blessing of Abraham to Jacob in part as his confession of his wait. Jacob and all of the children of Israel waited. The prophets who spoke the many Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament gave voice to their expectation, and to God's promise, stirring up over and over again that hope and sense of waiting. The hope and sense of expectation waxed and waned over the centuries, but it remained alive, if only just barely.
By the time that Jesus came, that hope was very dim and the expectation was almost extinguished. But not quite. A few remained who treasured the hope. Still, when the angel appeared to Zacharias, he could hardly believe that the time had come, and so He openly questioned the angel to his face. We know how that worked out. Zacharias had been given a sign that literally left him speechless for nine months or more.
When the angel, Gabriel, appeared to her, Mary believed, but few of those around her did. The people of God, chosen by Him in Abraham, had just about given up hope. The religion of Israel had become a religion of denial. They clung to the ancient forms, but the faith was lost to a form of empty ritualism and works righteousness. A Messiah? It hadn't happened yet, why should we believe it is happening now?
Joseph is our exemplar here. Joseph did not believe until he was confronted by the angel in a dream. The Bible doesn't paint the picture of the social ostracism they must have faced, but why else would he have taken his seriously expectant wife along on the journey to Bethlehem? Surely her family could have cared for her back home for a few days. I am guessing that no one else was any more minded to accept Mary's account of how she got pregnant than Joseph had been originally, and they did not get the angelic visit to straighten their thinking out.
Cousin Elizabeth only believed because the Holy Spirit had been poured into her - that and she was pregnant at an advanced age when women simply did not get pregnant! Her husband had seen the angel, and heard the wonderful news, and now she was pregnant in accord with the words of the angel. How could she doubt?
For the small cast of the miracle, life was difficult and strange: Joseph's wife was pregnant, but not by him. No one believed Mary's story about the angel, except the inner circle. They had a late-pregnancy journey that they were required to take. When we are tempted to wonder how the world around us can doubt the wonderful Christmas story, we just need to consider that first Christmas.
The world around the few who were privy to the great events of earth-shaking importance took no notice, naturally, and gave no particular quarter to the wonder that was happening in their midst. There were a few signs of notice, but not exactly what we would call faith. Scholars, Magi, were following a star that portended the birth of a king, according to legends and ancient books. Even with their marvelous gifts, they may not have understood what they were seeing.
A king was freaked out by strange visitors coming in response to a prophecy, and although he did not particularly understand or believe that prophecy, he was willing to do terrible things to make sure this odd prophecy could not touch his throne. If he had believed it, he might have understood who he was doing battle with, and understood how pointless it all was for him.
Shepherds were seeing lights and hearing voices in the fields, and running into the small town of Bethlehem with a strange story, looking for something, a baby who was actually born in a barn! We hear the story with the backlighting of the Gospel all rolled out for us, and Good Friday and Easter shedding their particular light on the scene, so their actions make some sort of sense to us. It just probably isn't the sense it made to them, or the people who "wondered at the things that were told to them by the shepherds". What they were thinking is difficult for us to imagine.
The young family fled in the dark of night to avoid the raving violence of a second-rate potentate in a backwater country.
Children were slaughtered. The countryside was in an uproar. No one really knew why - well at least no one of worldly importance, and very few others either.
It was the stuff of legends and myth. It was very hard to believe any of it.
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It still is.
The world doesn't accept the history. They like the story, but not as much as they like Santa and Rudolph and Frosty. They like the season of commerce that accompanies the story. Turns out it is about half of the year's sales for many businesses. Most of the people involved in the merchandising frenzy on either the buying or selling sides probably don't understand that the power of the season flowed out of believing, and that what they often experience is just the residual pull of something they no longer really believe and many times want to forget.
And every year the "experts" pop up on TV and in the finer newspapers to tell us that nothing really happened and they got it all wrong all those years ago. With great confidence and tones of superior knowledge leaking from their lips, they correct the dating and explain why what happened really could not have happened back then. They carefully present their unbelief all dressed up in pseudo-scientific jargon and historical minutiae intended to persuade us that they are really in the know and we are just gullible, simple folk blinded by ancient mythology.
They don't really have a problem with the history. They genuinely don't accept it as accurate, but that is their business. They are in the business of denying what everyone else thinks and finding something new to say about whatever it is they are talking about. It is called "publish or perish". Their real problem is the theology. They don't believe in God. Some believe in something they call "god", but they don't believe in He who exists, and the thought that He might be real, and that really He did what the Bible says He did in Jesus Christ (and will do what the Bible says He will do) terrifies them!
God in human flesh? God involved directly in human history? The power of miracles? Those things are terrifying if you don't know God and have no confidence in what He thinks or what He expects. Since "No man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit," they cannot make the leap to faith or trust the goodwill of God towards us. God is known to them as God was known to Adam and Eve immediately after eating the forbidden fruit. They were terrified. So are the modern scholars! God is the angry judge. There is no grace and kindness in the God who can whip up a hurricane or tornadoes or floods, not without Jesus. And they just can't accept Jesus. The thought means that God is real, and God is around, and they don't want God telling them what to do, or judging them at the end.
But we do. We who believe want to celebrate the truth that God was there, in that manger, in the flesh of that little baby. God did the impossible! He appeared in human form, bearing our nature and the burden of the Law of God on our behalf, and it began, at least as far as human observation goes, in Bethlehem, with that child. We know the whole story goes a lot farther back than that, but there we see it first. That moment was so significant that angels burst into song over fields filled with shepherds and their flocks. They came to make sure that the moment was not missed: Unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!
God hadn't gone missing. Here He is! He hadn't forgotten us. He is all wrapped up in swaddling cloths and in our lives and in our world, to save us from our sins. How cool is that?! Sure, the story is old . . . two thousand years old, but what a marvelous story it is, and it is absolutely true. We see it from such a distance in time that it is hard to see the manger without seeing the cross and the gloriously empty tomb of Easter, just like the prophets of old who could not describe what was coming without telling us all the details at once, describing the birth and the death and the resurrection as though they all happened at once. But that is okay. They are all different details in the same story, the story of God's love for us, and of our salvation.
The whole thing sounds improbable, until you know God. It is almost impossible to believe, except with the help of the Holy Ghost. It is a story for children, God's children, of whatever age they may be. I know that no matter how often I have heard it, I never get tired of hearing it again. Merry Christmas!!
Yours in the Lord,
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