The Reality of Christmas
December 25, 2011
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-25)
What a wonderful time the Christmas season can be! The beautiful Christmas carols. The glory of Handel’s Messiah. Moving pictures with tender scenes. Colorful displays of Christmas lights. For most of us it is one of the best times of the year, though we should not forget that for some—the lonely, the bereaved—it can be one of the most difficult. But I do have to wonder sometimes how deeply and how meaningfully we experience Christmas, the holy day we have set aside to remember and celebrate the birth of the one we call Emanuel, God-with-us. Do the central truths of the most astounding event in all history get proper attention? Do we really take the Christmas story seriously? Is it accurate and factual in every detail? Or do we have merely a collection of charming tales difficult for scientifically oriented people to believe? Who among us has seen an angel? Whom do we know that has followed a moving star?
Time was when no Christian questioned any statement in Scripture. Its teachings may not have controlled their lives in any significant way, but few would have doubted the inerrancy of the Word of God. But those were the days when most men believed the world was flat, burned and hanged witches, and attributed everything that happened to the direct, intentional will of God. With the rise of rationalism and the growth of modern science, this situation changed. So much so was this true that Copernicus’ teaching that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun produced what the German historian of religion Ernst Benz called “the Copernican shock.” Then in the last century came what we may well call “the Darwinian shock.” Faith in the complete accuracy of the Bible suffered considerably both at the hands of human reason and from some of the results of the scientific endeavor. But must our basic faith suffer?
Emanuel Swedenborg, who lived and wrote after Copernicus but earlier than Darwin, was as firmly convinced as a man could be that in Scripture we have the very word of God. Yet he did not feel that the validity of the Word depended upon either scientific or historic accuracy. Without making a big deal out of it, he mentions in his writings that the first eleven chapters of Genesis containing the creation and flood stories are made-up history, which—as his own books show—in no way prevents them from being vehicles and vessels of revelation. He might have called them “myths,” but he didn’t. However, if he had, I think he would have appreciated my favorite description of myth: “A myth is a lie that tells the truth.” Recall the power with which Jesus’ parables project their message, though we have no way of knowing whether each represents an actual happening. To coin a phrase (and a word)—it does not take factuality to communicate actuality.
In the next few weeks the songs we sing and the stories we read will be about messages from angels, a virgin mother, gentle shepherds, a guiding star, wise men from the East, and a stable. There will be colorful pictures, too. And at the center will be a tiny baby, all innocent and new. But what is the message? What was so important to create such a fuss?
For the Christian Church, for Christian people everywhere, the Advent and the Christmas stories are the wrappings enclosing the greatest Christmas gift any human being could ask for: the gift of God Himself to a troubled world. They tell of divine intervention in a world where men were destroying themselves for want of the inspiration and power to do otherwise. Does it really matter whether the Gospel writers remembered all the details exactly a generation or more after the actual events? It was their continuing experience of Jesus that assured them that a marvelous power for good had been let loose in the world by him of whom they wrote. The greatest testimony to Christ is not the stories of his birth or even the accounts of the miracles he worked; it is the tally of changed lives, of men and women made new by his presence. It is Albert Schweitzer and St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the faithfulness unto death of those who suffered martyrdom rather than deny him who made them new creatures. It is the dedicated lives of millions who have been honest and hardworking and considerate of others because of what Christ has done for them.
It has often been remarked that it would be nice if the Christmas spirit could be maintained all year round. Why should we be closer to other people at one time of year than we are the rest? Why should we show a consideration for others for a few short weeks that we deny to them the rest? Is it perhaps because we do not look often enough beyond the charming stories of Christmas to the gift it brings to all who are ready and willing to receive? As Dr. Joy Brown pointed out on her talk show one night, enjoying Christmas does not require a religious outlook or commitment. But it does, I think, require a religious perspective and genuine dedication in order for the spirit of Christmas to last. The setting for Christmas—a stable, an unimportant country town, a remote province of the Roman Empire—may not remind us of the cosmic consequences of this life through which God has come and spoken to us—not if we dwell only on the outward details. We might as well say with Jesus’ fellow townsmen, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judah, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The true dimensions of the Christmas story are best expressed in a passage that says nothing about angels or shepherds or a manger: one might call it the deeper story of Christmas. It is the opening verses of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. (John 1:1–5, 9–12)
Meditations and Prayers
We must dare to add this as being no less true: that the Source of all things Himself, in His wonderful and good love for all this, through the excess of His loving goodness, is carried outside Himself, in His providential care for all that is, so enchanted is He in goodness and love and longing. Removed from His position above all and beyond all, He descends to be in all according to an ecstatic and transcendent power which is yet inseparable from Himself.
- Dionysius the Areopagite (early sixth century)
Fill our hearts, O God, with such love towards you that nothing may seem too hard for us to do or to endure in obedience to your will. Grant that, loving you, we may become daily more like you and finally obtain the crown of everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901)
Lord Jesus, I give you my hands to do your work; I give you my feet to walk in your way; I give you my tongue to speak your word; and I give you my heart, that through me you may love every human soul, today and always.
- Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)
Rev. Edwin G. Capon