We begin today with a multiple-choice quiz: I will give you three options and I want you to vote by raising your hand to indicate your choice. The question is “What is the ‘True Meaning of Christmas’?”
- Giving of ourselves to others
- Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ
- Being with family and friends
Giving of ourselves to others: For some of us, “the true meaning of Christmas” involves GIVING – volunteering to help others in need, being kind to others, giving gifts from the heart… But the concept of gift-giving is a relatively new addition to the holiday. Although some believe the tradition of exchanging gifts is a hold-over from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the practice of exchanging gifts derives from our understanding of Santa Claus. As a historical character, Father Christmas, a jolly, well nourished, bearded man who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, predates the Santa Claus character. He is first recorded in early 17th century England, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness rather than the bringing of gifts – therefore gift giving emulating Santa Claus didn’t come about until the Victorian Era.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ: As we know, Jesus is the reason for the season… but if you think about the percentage of time we spend in worship, singing religious songs, reading the nativity story to our kids, spending time in prayer and devotion, it is really a fraction of the time we spend at the shopping mall, at Christmas parties, cleaning the house for visitors, stressing out at the things left undone… but maybe it is the Quality of time, not the quantity of time….
So maybe the “true meaning of Christmas” is being with our family and friends. (How many said that?) But what about those of us who prefer a quiet holiday, a day at the beach, a nice dinner with a friend?
As my Book Study participants told me, the true meaning of Christmas changes as we change: during our childhood, we may believe the true meaning of Christmas is one thing, but it changes as we grow up – we find meaning and joy in family gatherings and some years we’d prefer something quieter, less hassle, something that marks the holiday, but something more low-key…. The true meaning of Christmas – the birth of Christ – is different for each of us in each season of our lives.
During this time of year, we are inundated with various symbols and stories that help us remember what Christmas is “all about”. And we, as a species, are constantly reflecting on what the birth of Christ means to us personally, what the birth of Christ means to the world, and how the longest night of the year could produce such a blessing. And in our reflection, we often ask, how does the birth of a baby so long ago affect OUR LIVES? What does this event mean TO US? How do we celebrate the joy of this special birth when so much in the world is dismal? Should we celebrate? Why should we celebrate?
This exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew from the classic book “A Christmas Caro!,” explains the tension between those who find the holiday something to rejoice in, and those who don’t:
Nephew: “A Merry Christmas, Uncle Scrooge! God save you.”
Scrooge: “Merry Christmas? BAH! Humbug!”
Nephew: “Christmas a humbug, Uncle? Surely you don’t mean that.”
Scrooge: “A Merry Christmas you say? What right have you to be merry?
You’re poor enough.”
Nephew: “What right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips would be cooked with his own turkey and buried with a stake of hollies on his heart.”
Nephew: “Oh, Uncle…”
Scrooge: “…Nephew, you keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol was first published on December 19th, 1840 at a time in which the holiday was searching for a new identity, a new way for the common people to celebrate. For centuries it was a religious holiday, the Mass to celebrate Christ. But much of the celebration was focused on behavior the Victorian age found inappropriate. The old revelry – drinking and carousing was looked down upon and the population needed a way to celebrate without such debauchery. The Christmas Carol provided a theme: Christmas is a time to realize our blessings and to change our lives for the better.
The story, if you don’t know it, centers on Ebenezer Scrooge, a greedy money- lender whose business practices have made him very unpopular. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by three ghosts: The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. And through the series of visions, they show him, the “true meaning” of Christmas.
For us in the Christian faith, that “true meaning” centers on the birth of a special baby. While travelling the countryside on route to Bethlehem, Joseph and his young wife Mary find themselves in a crisis. They are poor. They are alone. They are unprepared for Mary to give birth. And so, after searching for housing and finding none, Mary gives birth in a stable, among the animals. And she wrapped the baby in bands of cloth and placed the baby in a manger.
This is our collective understanding of that first Christmas – the ghost of our Christmas Past – the story of our Savior, born in humble beginnings to live a humble life. In recalling that old story of how this special baby was born, we connect with our ancestors in their waiting for the Messiah to come. We experience the yearnings of ancient Israel; we witness God born to us once again. In remembering this Christmas Past, we say to the world “In this baby, we are witness to God in human form; we are witness to the One who reveals God’s dream for this world!”
Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a disturbing visit to his own past, and then he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, “filled with the Here and Now” of Christmas. And our challenge, too, is look around us and recognize the Christmas of the Present – to ask how will Christmas be celebrated in the homes of those we love, those we work with, those in our daily interactions and those throughout our world?
For Scrooge this is accomplished by a visit to the house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk. There, Scrooge witnesses a heart-warming vision of Bob Cratchit’s poor family celebrating with a meager feast. And suddenly his eyes are opened. Why did he never notice that his clerk -who worked hard and was a loyal friend, employee, and father – had so little?
Our celebrations too, as we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, must recognize the plights of others in our midst: people who are ill, those who are alone for the holidays, those whose Christmas memories are not so good, those who are crying out for love and help and healing -it is Christmas for all of us. The story of the Nativity begins with a scene: a poor couple with no where to go, shoved out of society and made to feel as valued as the dirty animals, giving birth to a baby and placing it not in a proper cradle, not in the arms of a doctor or nurse, but in a feeding trough.
This is Christmas Present: examining the circumstances of others and taking those people into our hearts and asking what ca we do? And if you think, perhaps this is a holiday for children, or for others, not for me… consider these words of the angels.
11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
This Savior is born to YOU! And to me! To us, Jesus Christ is born. Each of us has a part to play in this “Christmas Present” and our part cannot be played by another. There is no stand-in for you at the manger. We all gather around that feeding trough, among the animals, among the poor shepherds, among the angels as we witness the Christmas that is among us. A miracle of salvation that is “God with Us”.
And then he is shown his future – if he does not change, he is destined for a future of lonlieness, isolation and a sad, cold death. A future without companionship, a future without friends, a future without joy.
And so he repents! In the true meaning of the word – he turns around from the path he was treading and he goes a different way. As Scrooge learns his lessons, he experiences a Iife-changing transformation – a salvation of sorts, realizing he can no longer go on being the “covetous old sinner” he once was. Dickens describes the scene:
“He was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten.”
“He went to the church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and for, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed of any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.”
And after these lessons Scrooge says,
“l will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Basking in the glow of Christmas, in his own salvation, Scrooge must change to reflect his newfound knowledge. He must be more generous. He must care for others, and let others care for him. He must rejoice in gratitude that God has given him a new start!
A Christmas Carol is a story of conversion, you see, from dark to light, from grumpy to joyful, from a shut-down, cold, mean spirit to a joyful one, from death to new Iife!
We celebrate this morning, not only a Christmas of the past – a long-ago event…and not only a Christmas of the Present – our Christmas now – but a Christmas of the future, one in which we too will be transformed, a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more open to the wonder of God.
May it be so this Christmas and all the year. And may God bless us, everyone.