December 24, 2010
William G. Carter
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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."
It was one of those holiday scenes that happen all the time, but is quickly missed. A family of four emerged from the shopping mall, their arms burdened with packages. They were tired but jubilant. Clearly they had everything they wanted. As they come out the door, they pass by a guy in a Santa hat, standing by a red kettle and chiming a bell.
The seven year old son stops in his tracks, turns and looks. His parents pause to retrieve him. The Santa with the bell asks, “Do you wish to help the poor?” The boy nods, but his father has other ideas. “Come on,” he says, “let’s go,” and tugs on the kid’s sleeve.
But suddenly, about ten steps away, the boy breaks free and returns. Fishing down deep in his pocket, he finds two coins and drops them in the kettle. Then he explains to his confused and impatient family, “Christmas is for other people, too.”
I suppose this is hard for us to see. We have been well-trained to believe Christmas is about us: that it is about our wish lists, our families, our decorations and customs. There are Currier and Ives pictures of the perfect Christmas engraved on our minds. We would like to have our loved ones around our tables eating our food and enjoying our generosity. It is hard to think about anybody else.
The other day, I hopped on the shoppers’ bus to Manhattan with one of my daughters. On Times Square, the red kettles were everywhere, attended by jolly elves who sang along with canned music. It some sight to see battery-powered karaoke machines with the imprint, “Property of the Salvation Army.” Most of the tourists passed them by, making their way to visit Macy’s or to catch a show. They were in the city to spend money, not share it. Each little flock trudged along in isolation and indifference.
It is hard to think that Christmas is for other people, too. We are told to indulge ourselves. In one high-end boutique on Fifth Avenue, I spied a nice blue dress shirt. The sign said, “40% off.” So I sneaked a peek at the tag – normal cost for one shirt is $295. Even with the holiday discount, I decided to pass; it was combed cotton, and I would probably shrink it the first time I washed it. As we stepped outside, just a few paces away a blind saxophonist blowing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Somehow I felt compelled to throw five bucks in his instrument case. After all, it is Christmas. Christmas is not for me alone – it’s for him, too.
It is hard to keep this clear, but this is the essence of the story. Jesus is born in a little town with a distant memory and a murky future. The Caesar of that time, Caesar Augustus, had sent armies to occupy the region. Then he decided to tax the occupants so there were funds to pay for his armies. The local authorities set up a system to register each family in their home town, and that’s how Joseph brought his pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Her son is born in the shadows of a greedy empire.
The news of the birth is announced to shepherds who work the land. We don’t know their names. Apparently they weren’t significant enough to be included in the census. But angels sing the news to them – and nobody else. It is “good news of a great joy for all the people.” For all the people. This little baby is going to rescue people from their isolation. He is going to save them from their indifference. He will heal them from the ways that their own selfishness has broken them.
It is good news for a shepherd. In that time, the city folk considered the sheep-keepers as thieves. They let their flocks graze on lands that were not their own. Even the religious elite decreed that all shepherds were sinners, not permitted to enter the Jerusalem temple until they atoned for every blade of grass that their animals stole from their neighbors. This is, after all, what religious people when they have a lot of time on their hands: they cook up religious rules to separate themselves from the commoners with dirty fingernails.
But the angels sing to the shepherds: “Unto you is born a Savior.” Unto all of you. This is “good news of a great joy for all the people.”
You see, God is on a mission to save the world. That is what Christmas is about. That is why the angels are singing. It is not because the C.E.O. of H. J. Heinz just got an 8.6 million dollar bonus this year. No, it is because God believes that other people matter, too. That God makes each human being with inestimable value. There is peace on earth among those whom God loves – provided, of course, that they share the love. It is the sharing of love that makes it real.
This is what the child Jesus will grow up to teach and exemplify. He gives himself to the world – and commands us to give ourselves to our neighbors. Forgive one another. Share what you have. Feed the hungry. Take care of the weak. Heal what is broken. And never give in to fear.
The fact is there is a lot of fear out there. It can tempt us to hunker down and insulate ourselves. But the angels come and dismiss the gloom of night. Unto you – all of you! A great joy for all the people! For other people. If Christmas this year is sad and dark, it could be because it has become all about you, and not yet about other people. Joy comes by stepping out of ourselves – and giving ourselves to the needs of others.
If we cannot hear the angels, we can listen to Stephen Colbert. About a week ago, with deep irony, he took on the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and a few self-righteous Christians, and he said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition ... and then admit that we just don't want to do it." (December 16, 2010)
At the heart of the Gospel is God’s generosity. In the birth of Jesus, God comes for everybody. Christmas is not a private possession of self-absorbed people. Christmas is not the hoarded gift of a frightened church. Christmas is God’s gift to the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and embodied in Jesus. It is found among people who are learning to cherish one another … to the glory of God.
One of my teachers told me about a missionary to China. His name was Oswald Golter, and he served in China in the 1940’s. He was an agricultural missionary and taught people how to raise crops. When the Communists came, they forced him to leave. So his supporters in America wired him a ticket, and told him to make his way to India to catch a ship home. When he arrived in India, he discovered many Jews were there in dismal poverty. They landed in India because India was one of the few countries in the world that welcomed the Jews after Hitler expelled them from Europe.
Dr. Golter was glad to see them. It was Christmas time and he said, “Merry Christmas!" They said, “But we are Jews.”
“Oh, I know, but Merry Christmas anyway. What would you like for Christmas?” They said, “But we are Jews.”
He said, “Oh, I know. But is there anything you wish you could have for Christmas?” They thought about it and said, “We wish we could taste again some fine German pastries.”
Dr. Golter went all over that city in India and found a shop that sold fine German pastries. He cashed in his ticket home and bought boxes and boxes of pastries. Then he delivered them to the barns and the attics and the sheds where those Jewish people were living and said, “Merry Christmas!” Then he wrote home and said, “Send me another ticket.”
Years later, he told that story to a group of preachers. One of them stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “Why did you do that? Those people aren’t Christians. They don’t believe in Jesus Christ!" Dr. Golter said, "But I do!" (Thanks to Fred Craddock for the story.)
Christmas is for other people, too. Joy to the world … the whole world … your neighbor’s world.
(c) William G. Carter
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