For Christmas, my husband gave me the flu. Of course he didn’t mean to, but because of the flu, the sermon I was supposed to be preaching tomorrow is still in its embryonic phases, written in lucid (hopefully) moments between Tylenol doses. No worries though, the sermon isn’t getting preached anyway. I’ll be spending tomorrow, most likely, the same way I’ve spent the last five days. Thanks to Fr. Paul for covering my tail, when I was supposed to be covering his.
But I thought I’d post here the sermon fragment that won’t get preached. For your edification or, if I wasn’t as lucid as I like to think myself, entertainment.
Blessed Christmas, folks. Hope yours is healthy and happy.
Because I have kids, I’ve spent a significant portion of my life enduring talking cartoon vegetables attempting to define the “True Meaning of Christmas.” I have to admit, the little asparagus summed up the cultural Christmas pretty well with “Christmas is when you get stuff.” Indeed, the secular Christmas has come to be about nothing more than greed and material status. We buy gifts to make us look good when we give them and we look forward to getting “stuff.”
Having had the flu for the majority of the week leading up to Christmas, I had some time to explore some of the cultural icons of Christmas. Religious context stripped away, symbols floated meaninglessly across my computer screen. A Simpsons episode stated it best, what is the point of a tree which, in Lisa Simpson’s words, has been cruelly chopped down and “tarted up.” Gifts, trees, without meaning, it is just more stuff.
Another of my flu-ridden cultural studies noted that our culture has shaped our Christmas, because indeed our culture’s god is greed. Some Christians may, as the commentator said, put on a good show, but really its about greed. He cited televangelists and Oprah as the icons of Greed-worshipping modern spirituality. Again, its just more stuff.
And then there’s that iconic secular Christmas tune: Santa Claus is coming to town, with its message “so be good for goodness sake.” Now if that isn’t the very opposite of the Gospel message that the real St. Nicholas so boldly defended, I don’t know what is!
So we come to church and look for the true meaning of Christmas here. We find a baby in a manger, a sanitized and romanticized birth story, some cuddly thoughts about shepherds and sheep. But no real answer to the “so what? How then shall we live?” Jesus was born, hooray… but does that change anything? Just like those trees and stars that floated across my screen devoid of context, the baby in the manger is just an absurdity if you don’t know the back-story.
If you want to know the real meaning of Christmas, you have to know the context. John, the beloved disciple, begins, as good stories often do, at the beginning. Literally. In the beginning, was the word. This is John’s Christmas story. In the beginning, before there was anything else, there was the word. His Hebrew readers would know this story; Genesis one begins with those same words “in the beginning.” In fact the Hebrew word for Genesis means beginning. And John’s Hebrew reader would know that in the beginning, God spoke, and nothingness became everything, the cosmos obeyed his command came into existence. In the beginning was the Word.
John’s Greek readers would get the point, too. They would read John’s words as “in the beginning was reason.” Reason, they believed, ordered the universe and held everything together. In other words, in the beginning was the one through whom all things were made. Nothing was made without him. Psalm 19 says that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” And Christmas is about the Word by which all things are made “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” The word by which the heavens were made left the glories of the Father’s presence, and became flesh, and dwelt among us.
“He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar. He was on earth so that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. He, being rich, therefore became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might become rich. There fore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord's weakness is our virtue. He chose to lack for Himself, that He may abound for all.” - St. Ambrose