CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS - Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-14(15-20) - CANON ERIC COOTER AT ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Christmas includes so many wonderful traditions : decorating the tree, drinking eggnog, hanging stockings, unwrapping gifts, children waiting for Santa Claus, and all those awesome Christmas stories on television and the movies. This year’s (2020) Christmas celebrations and festivities will not be traditional to say the least. A global pandemic plagues all of us, and in the midst of these days, we live in troubling and painful times. Life is different and we all long for something that looks normal. Many of us this week will try and get lost in a movie or television drama. Hopefully we will watch a story that will portray Christmas from prior years. Televised entertaining stories can, in the midst of all that has changed, allow us to experience those wonderful holidays of old.
Pre-pandemic fantasies of Christmas can be enjoyed watching stories such as: Home Alone I, II, and III, Elf, Christmas with the Cranks and Polar Express. We can be whisked away to a better time and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and of course, the never-ending Hallmark Channel Christmas Romance Novels made for Television. These Christmas stories can help us forget just how different life is this year such as, Christmas shopping is mostly online, holiday celebrations are cancelled, and family gatherings are minimized or non-existent. Televised Christmas fantasy can give us a respite from social distancing and mask wearing, as we watch better times being played out on the screen.
Stories of Christmas
It is interesting to note that all of these Christmas stories I mentioned, follow a similar story line and all have similar beginnings, middles, and endings. Most begin with some controversy or challenge involving a close-knit family. Next, the tension of the story is somehow miraculously resolved, and finally everyone experiences unexpected joy, peace, and goodwill. Each story presents a different central character, who in the story eventually wins the day and a new era of life emerges after the Christmas Joy. One thing I find interesting about this stories is that they do not even mention the central character of the true Christmas story we Christians tell. Hallmark never mentions the real “reason for the season;” Jesus Christ. The Christmas story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, God in flesh seems to compete with, and is often the secondary narrative of the season we celebrate today. Now, when the story of the Nativity of Christ is depicted on the big screen, it is often presented to us as a picture-perfect Hallmark moment. Nonetheless, that night in Bethlehem was far from perfect. The real story of Christmas and the events of that fateful night, seem less like the perfect, fairy tale scene. That fateful night seems much more like the unimaginably difficult times in which, we find ourselves today.
There were no twinkling lights except the stars in the sky and of course, that special star that shown above the manger. There were no red paper wrapped toys, except the ones the Maggi brought from the Eastern parts of the empire. There were no elves, reindeer, or snowmen characters, but there were shepherds, sheep, donkeys, and other animals finding shelter where the Baby Jesus was laid. There were no Christmas Carols being sung in the background, save the angels who proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Jesus’ birth took place in a shabby, untidy barn with difficult circumstances for a poor family that night. This story gives us a peek into the difficulties of everyday normal life of the world’s people, in the midst of unexpected challenges and a global plague of poverty, oppression, and an oppressive empire. You see, we 21st century folks tidy Christmas up and make it almost seem surreal, as if it were a mere fairy tale or just another story on television.
The Christmas Story
Joseph, Mary, the Infant Jesus and the scene in that little town of Bethlehem is the ironic story of how God, the Creator of all we perceive, the Redeemer of our lives, and the Sustainer of all creation came among us as one of us. God came to us to close the chasm between, to bring us back to him. This act by God, humbled, and vulnerable is the good news of this story. God acted first in love, which is what God always does to reconcile and restore us.
God came to us not in power but in humility. Under the oppression of a governmentally mandated census, through which all the known world would be required to travel to their birthplace to be counted. The egotistical and narcissistic Roman Emperor Cesar, sought to place a numeric value on what and who he ruled, all as a symbol of his earthly imposing power. Now, part of the irony of the Christmas drama is that the real ruler of the world Jesus Christ, came to us as a poor little helpless baby and not a power-wielding Emperor that needed to feed his ego. The real Christmas story from its humble poverty-stricken beginnings, overturned the idea the earthly power leads to redemption. The real story of Christmas tells us that true power comes from humble, self-giving love, shared by a young family, and manifested in a baby, whose purpose and eventual mission would be to change the whole world through love.
The Humble God
There was no pomp and circumstance in this story, no social insiders, no big parties, and no consumer-influenced gifts. The first visitors to see this King of Kings were not celebrities, pop culture stars, or even political figures. There were no Kardashians, or Taylor Swift, Kanye West, or even political all-stars showing up to this event for an endorsement. At this critical world-changing event, only shepherds who herded unsavory sheep out in the fields came to sing praises to the God who came to us in the flesh. There were no bands or choirs, and definitely, no small-town Hallmark movie celebrations or parades.
The birth of Christ was like the real deal life we all live each day, and the God who brought it all into being, showed up as one of us in the middle of our muck and mire. God humbled Godself, to heal the chasm of the relationship, from which we often walk away. We often reject the pain, poverty, and difficulties of story of humble love in a manger, for the comfortable, satisfying, and safe stories for which we all long. The irony of God’s mission to bring us to love and joy is found in the path of trust and faith, even in the midst of pain and troubles.
You see, you cannot get to the joy of the Easter story without the unsavoriness of the Christmas story. You cannot get to resurrection and salvation, without the event of incarnation and the Babe in the Manger. You cannot really receive the Good News of God’s love, unless you listen to the angel, who proclaimed that night in the midst of fear, cold, and the plague of poverty and uncertainty, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That same promise of God is being shared with all of us in the midst of the plague, in which we must make sacrifices, offer humble love, and face challenges like never before, so that we all can live and ” not be afraid.”
Reason for the Season
So, this story of humble love presented in the birth of a child is the reason we celebrate Christmas and it is the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The God who made all of us, loves us. God loves us so much that he transcended time and space and entered into the mire and muck of life as one of us, so he could show us what the love he has for us looks like, and it looks like Jesus. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” Jesus is the rabbi, teacher, healer, and lover of all with whom he came in contact. Jesus is God in flesh, who restored the broken, set prisoners free, and showed us the kind of self-giving love that we as his followers should strive for.
Now maybe you are thinking, “that all sounds so wonderful Canon Eric, but I am not sure I believe all of it.” “Ok,” that’s fair and thank you for being honest. So, may I suggest you take a little leap of faith in the coming year and make the story of Christ’s humble love your story. Try and live your life filled with love, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Live as if the story is true, because if it is true (which I believe it is), then everything in your life is going to change. However, even if it is not true (which I believe it is true), and if you live as if it is true, then everything in your life is still going to change. If each of us were to live the Christmas story in the coming year, then the world will change as well.
So, my hope for you this Christmas Eve is that you might hear this story with renewed hearing. When you leave this service for the safe distanced celebrations that you plan, I pray you go forward each day trusting your life to God. I pray you will live in humble love and listen to those holy messengers who promised so long ago, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Now that my sisters and brothers that is the real Christmas story that changed everything in history, it changes everything this day, and if you let it, it will change everything in your life, from this day forward! Merry Christmas.
Canon Eric Cooter, at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, December 24th, 2020
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.