“What Christmas Means to Me”

Isaiah 9:6-7

A child will be born for us. A son will be given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. He will be named: Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and peace will have unlimited growth. He will establish David’s throne and kingdom. He will uphold it with justice and righteousness now and forever.

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds were in the fields near Bethlehem. They were taking turns watching their flock during the night. An angel from the Lord suddenly appeared to them. The glory of the Lord filled the area with light, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid! l have good news for you, a message that will fill everyone with joy. Today your Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in David’s city. This is how you will recognize him:

You will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly, a large army of angels appeared with the angel. They were praising God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who have his good will.” The angels left them and went back to heaven. The shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. “Everyone who heard the shepherd’s story was amazed. Mary treasured all these things in her heart always thought about them. As the shepherds returned to their flock, they glorified and praised God for everything they had seen and heard. Everything happened the way the angel had told them.”

“What Christmas Means to Me”

Chris-mus and Christ’s-mass are two of my favorite holidays. They weren’t always. I grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, agnostics and atheists. None of which celebrate the Christ’s Mass. The atheists’ and agnostics in the family did at least celebrate Chris-mus.

You know the difference right? For a long time I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t even know that one was a holiday and the other a holy day.

Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of the Christ child. The promised savior of sinful man. The fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that, through his decedent, all people will be blessed.

Chris-mus, (notice the way it is pronounced … Chris rather than Christ) on the other hand, is a secular holiday that celebrates gift giving, Santa, flying deer, evergreen trees and colored lights.

My mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, celebrated neither holiday nor did my sister. My brother celebrated Chris-mus and gave gifts and decorated their home. I was nearly the age of his children and occasionally would also receive gifts from him. (actually is was his wife who was in charge of gifts). As I grew older, I also exchanged gifts with my nieces and nephews.

When I had children of my own, we celebrated a hybrid version of the two holiday’s. We decorated and gave gifts but the focus was on the birth of Christ. My kids knew the Santa myth but were never encouraged to believe it.

Now that I have grown into being Santa, my grandchildren and great grandchildren believe in Santa. I enjoy it. Santa is an example of the best of what we are as humans. he is loving, jolly, giving soul who puts everyone else’s happiness above his own and goes out of his way to be a servant to others. And he gets paid in cookies and milk. How great is that?

However, as we’ve all heard, Jesus is the reason for the season. So I’ve made it my mission to put Christ back into my holy day greetings by trying to remember to say Merry Christ’s Mass

Our Hebrew scripture reading from Isaiah delivers the promise that “A child will be born for us.” Did you catch that? For us … a gift … for us. For us … not a random birth … but a birth with a purpose … for us. I had a startling, mind opening thought here. Listen … here it comes … the gift is never more important than the recipient. Right? The new socks that I received are not more important than I am. The piece of jewelry that I gave is not more important than the person to whom I gave it. Do you see it? Do you understand what that means? God valued US more than his son! Or, if you understand the reality of the Trinity … God valued US more than Himself. But don’t take my word for it, hear the words that Jesus himself spoke, “For God so loved the world (us) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That revelation alone should take us humbly to our knees to praise God for His love of us.

Listen as the promise continues, “A son will be given to us.” Now the promise is restated “to us”. “For us” spoke to the sacrificial nature of God’s gift. “To us” speaks to the direction of this love. This love is to us … not from us … not because of anything that we have done to deserve it … it is just “to us”.

“The weight of the government will rest on his shoulders.” For centuries this was understood by most to mean that the Christ would rule an earthly kingdom. A kingdom such as the people understood but with a benevolent leader who would unite all mankind under his rule. We, from our perspective, have heard Christ’s response when Pilate asked him about his kingdom. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight to prevent my arrest by Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

No, in his earthly life the only things place on his shoulders were the weight of the cross and the burden of our sins. And yet, just as the prophet said, His kingdom continues to grow, there is no end to it.

I doubt that the shepherds who received the angel’s greeting centuries later were thinking of Isaiah’s words. And yet, they were still waiting and expecting the Christ to come.

I try to inject myself into these scriptures and imagine what it was like to be a shepherd on those dark hills that night. No smog and no light pollution from our modern cities. The sky would have been as black as the inside of a cave. And yet the sky was ablaze with the light of billion upon billion of stars such as few of us have ever seen. Most of the team of shepherds were dozing while a few kept watch, constantly aware that there are predators and other dangers in the dark. They were probably talking about the scores of their favorite sports teams (or whatever men talked about before professional sports and automobiles … I have no idea.) A small fire is crackling nearby. It is not so large as to ruin their night vision but just enough to keep the chill of the night at bay. Fragrant smoke curling upward carrying the scent of olive branches and grapevines toward heaven. And into this peaceful setting, an angel, glowing with unearthly light, suddenly appears and says, “Do not be afraid.” Too late! I would have already wet myself. “Do not be afraid?” You are kidding, right? Then the angel continues, “Boys, I’ve got great new that will have everyone wetting themselves with joy!” Okay, that’s not a direct quote but understand that this news is unlike any other news before or after. No other news in all creation was more important than “Christ has come!”

The shepherds are not commanded to find him but it is assumed that they will so they are given this simple way to recognize this new born Lord of all, “He will be wrapped in strips of cloth and laying in a feeding trough.”

I’m sure that Bethlehem was no where near the 25,000 people that live there today, but it was a city who’s population was swollen because of the people who had come to be registered for the emperors census. How did the shepherds find Him? Well, first of all they were not looking for a baby born in a house. The baby was laying in a manger. Probably the parents were travelers so go look where travelers go … inns. Or more precisely to an inn so full that guests would have to seek shelter in the stable. And with the added assist of some divine guidance, the shepherds find him just as the angels had said.

And what was the 1 scene in that stable that the shepherds found? Well, unlike the romantic paintings, there were no angels hanging about outside or floating above the baby. If you’ve ever been in a barn where animals are kept, you don’t have to imagine too hard and long as to what it smelled like: a mixture of new hay, old wood and animal odors. The animals are awakened by all the activity and probably expecting to be fed. This would have not been unusual for shepherds. But in the middle of all this is Mary, all exhausted from travel and childbirth. She hasn’t had a midwife or family or friends to help her through the delivery or the cleanup. Childbirth is a messy business.

Joseph has done what he could to make his little family comfortable and safe. All the concerns of a new father have just been made real in his life. They are far from home because of the decree of some far off, foreign emperor to find out how many subjects he can tax. The journey to Bethlehem was hard … how hard is the journey home going to be now that there is a baby to be tended? How much income is he loosing because he is away from his place of business?

We tend to overlook the human aspects in this story because of the divine. The glorious news of the Savior’s birth is glorious to us because we don’t have to deal with the day to day realities that Mary and Joseph and yes, the new born Christ child were dealing with. Enter the shepherds, all excited and animated as they tell of the appearance of the angels and the prophesy that was told to them.

Both Mary and Joseph had their moments of divine intervention, but that was months ago. we humans have a problem; even if we have experienced a divine moment, after a while the concerns of our daily life push the divine to the back of our mind. enter the shepherds, all excited, all talking at once, waving their arms with excited gestures, overflowing with the enthusiasm of their own divine intervention. The scriptures do not record how long this party went on before one of the shepherds realize that they have walked off and left their sheep. But it does say that they went away praising God.

And that’s what Christmas means to me.

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