When I think about Christmas - and who doesn't this time of year? - I miss my Mom and my Dad. I miss my brothers and sisters - not as they are today, but as they were back then. I miss the delight of seeing the lights that decorated the houses around town. You see, my dad would take us out to see them Christmas Eve, while Mom was getting ready to go to church (and putting out the gifts from Santa we would discover when we got home late that night). I miss the fun of picking out gifts for everyone in the family - all purchased on the two or three dollar budget I had back then - and the thrill of waiting for the moment of opening the gifts - and seeing how much everyone else liked the gift I picked for them. I miss my grandparents, who always arrived with arm-loads of gifts (there were six of us grandchildren, after all) and hearts full of love. I miss going to the midnight Christmas Eve service and seeing the huge Christmas trees lighted up and hearing the congregation - hundreds of people packing into the huge church in Minneapolis that I attended as a child - singing those Christmas hymns with such zest and emotion. I miss the wonderful preaching of Pastor Schroedel - pretty near the perfect pastor.
The best thing about Christmas is that it promises that the people I miss most - and the delights - are not gone forever. I will see them again. Throughout my life, I have celebrated and delighted in so many things and people in Christmas - and sometimes I did not focus on the right things in my celebration, but Christmas begins the 'do-over' of forgiveness, and eternal life and salvation. All by itself, Christmas doesn't do any of that, but the best thing about Christmas is that it is never "all by itself".
Christmas is the celebration of a part, a step, in the extravagant plan of God for our salvation. Each part is worth celebrating, and singularly impressive all by itself. The whole thing, of course, is too big and too wonderful to be grasped in its entirety by a mind as feeble as my own. I can see the outlines of it, and I can delight in the meaning of it, but I cannot comprehend the whole thing any more than I can make the Trinity work in my reasoning. I can repeat what the Bible tells us about it, and stake my confidence in it, and confess the truth of it - but three in one and one in three doesn't actually work smoothly in a mind like mine. I just accept it.
And that is how it is with the plan of God for my salvation. I can repeat what the Bible tells us about it, but the entire thing is too wonderful for me, as the Psalmist says, it too high, I cannot attain to it. I am able only to believe it and confess it and find delight in it - and that only by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in me through the Word.
Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It was of such significance that angels just had to sing about it over the fields outside of Bethlehem that night. God had humbled Himself to become one of us - and to do it by the ordinary route of birth as an infant. His love made Him do it! Love for me! Love for you! The step of taking on human nature and human flesh and blood was radical. Theologians and thinkers ever since have been busy trying to tell us that it is impossible. It just cannot be done. You cannot fit the infinite into the finite form of a man, or so they say. Couple that with the notion, entirely God's, of uniting His divine nature with the human nature so that neither is destroyed, both are and both endure, and they are inseparably united forever without changing God into something less, or changing the human into something else. And they are not two beings, but one Person, an impossible, living contradiction in terms, accomplished by God for our salvation, and our comfort, because of His great love with which He loved us! That has to be the best thing about Christmas!
We focus on the Babe of Bethlehem, and the manger and the trappings of that first Christmas, both the realities and the traditions which have grown up around the day in our minds. He is the main event, but He is so much more than our hymns and nativity creches express. I would guess that is necessarily so. I mean, how do you pack the wonder of the incarnation into a table-top display? Who could sing the music that would be required to express the glory of it all? So, we package up little bits of it in each piece of our celebration and hope to celebrate the whole thing to some degree.
The Church service is part of it. The first Christmas celebrants did not go to church, they went to the stable. They did not sing hymns, except for the celestial choir, of course. They came and saw what they had been told they would find - a rather ordinary sight at that, for all the wonder it actually contained. Then they went back to work in the fields. But on the way, they couldn't resist telling everybody they ran into about the angels and the child, born to be Savior. We don't know if the cow, "all shaggy and brown", or "the goat with the curly horn" that children love to sing about were really there or not. But our singing about them celebrates the wonder of the unique thing that God was doing there, in that manger.
My Mom and Dad were like Mary and Joseph, in a way. God gave them a child to raise for Him (six of us, actually). They brought us faithfully to Bethlehem each year to see in all the worldly pomp around Christmas the size of the glory of the thing that God accomplished in that little stable. Their assigned task was, admittedly, a very normal sort of thing to do, but then, so was what Mary and Joseph did. What was remarkable in the work of Mary and Joseph was what God was doing. Mary and Joseph were just doing their best to walk faithfully with their God. And so were my parents - or so I believe.
The gifts in which my child's mind found such delight were echoes, if you will, of the great gift of God in giving us His Son. I enjoyed the toys and the candy for the toys and the candy, but my parents often talked about the gift of God and reminded us that our gifts were given in remembrance of the great gift God which had given us, so we were never totally unaware of the connection. The presents just made Christmas delightful for the mind of a child that would not find delight in theology until much later.
The tree was just a custom by the time I came along, but I learned quickly that Luther had begun that custom using the tree as a symbol of life, and the lights as a reminder of Christ who is the Light of the world. Many people had a star on the top of their tree, recalling the star which guided the Magi to the place where Jesus was, but we always had 'Angie, the Christmas tree angel.' Her 'glory' of spun fiberglass fibers were, in fact, not that impressive, but it wasn't Christmas without her atop the tree, standing on her cloud and looking like she was about to burst into the song of those first Christmas angels, Gloria in Excelsis Deo - Glory be to God on High, and on earth, peace among men of His good-pleasure. And she always looked good to me. She spoke to my mind of Christmas.
One of the things about Christmas that I enjoyed most, but didn't realize it was such a big thing for me until I outgrew it, was the Christmas program. For eight or nine years, I had a part to memorize and then recite for the whole congregation. Over those years, I memorized the entire account of Christmas from Luke chapter 2. I also learned many of the prophecies of Christ and His birth by repeating them year after year in my memorizing for the program. As a pastor, it is still one of my favorite things - to hear children reciting the Scriptures about the birth of Christ. It is a very visible and audible demonstration that we are passing on the Gospel to the next generation. The kids almost never do a really impressive job of memorizing, or reciting for that matter, but year after year, they also learn the story, just a little more every year, until it becomes part of them. It is one of my greatest Christmas joys - when we have children in the congregation!
But the best thing about Christmas is, simply, Christ. We can live without the gifts. Most people complain about the commercialization of the holiday anyhow. The family meal is fun, but who really needs the calories? The people who really need them aren't coming to our tables. The family gathering can be fun, but it can also be a source of holiday stress at times. The church services and the Christmas programs are delightful and nostalgic, but we don't really gather for nostalgia - or at least we should have a higher reason than that. The best thing about Christmas is Christ.
Christmas is the beginning of the Gospel. We can talk about how God had it planned from all eternity, and we can study the Old Testament preparations for the birth of the Messiah, and how the prophecies and accounts of Old Testament Israel give meaning to so much of the New Testament, but Christmas is where we see it begin. God takes on that human flesh and blood and becomes one of us in a tangible and visible way at Christmas. Jesus is the revelation and explanation of God and His will for us and His love for us. We can talk about it all day long in the abstract, but when we consider the Babe of Bethlehem, it takes a firm shape and the dimensions of God's love become somewhat more clear.
He loved us enough to humble Himself to be born of the Virgin in Bethlehem. He chose the obscurity of a stable. A couple of days earlier and He would have been born in Nazareth in the home of His earthly parents. A couple of days later and He would have been born in a house in Bethlehem, perhaps, or maybe back in Nazareth again. He chose to be born in a stable. He chose to be cradled in a food-trough - what the King James Bible taught us to call "a manger". He elected to come into absolute poverty and want, taking no advantage over the poorest and most humble among us.
He could have called for kings to come and worship, but He chose shepherds instead. You could say that He knew His audience; kings would have been jaded by their comforts and privilege. Shepherds were impressed by the angels, and humbly waiting for the Messiah, believing the promises, and willing and open to being impressed by the wonder of the truth, rather than the setting in which they found it. The Magi, called "kings" in our Christmas carols, we not kings but scholars - studying the stars, and the religions of the world, and the limited science of their day. He opened their eyes to see and understand the star. His first worship came from Gentiles who just happened to have studied the Scriptures of the Jews.
There He was. God, who was, at the same time, ruling the motion of the stars and planets throughout the universe, and guiding the chemical reactions of life that kept His mother and father, and His own body functioning and alive, was also lying there as a helpless infant, unable to feed Himself, or clean His own swaddling cloths. He had come for one specific purpose: to die a most grisly and terrible death on behalf of those who hated Him and would, one day, kill Him.
Not one of us would deliberately put ourselves in a position of such total dependence. Not one of us would sign up for such absolutely certain pain and death. Few, if any, of us would choose to humble ourselves so completely, let alone do it for the sake of others - especially those who declared themselves to be our enemies with no provocation from us. But God did. He loved us so much that He chose to walk a path we cannot honestly imagine ourselves walking. He was born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law. He humbled Himself for us.
That is the love of God - how deep and wide it is for us. Of course, Christmas isn't really Christmas without Easter, but the best thing about Christmas is Christ and what the Incarnation reveals to us about God and His love. Christmas gives us that identifiable 'first step' in the Gospel plan - and a season of delight!
Yours in the Lord,
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