January 5, 2014
William G. Carter
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.
One of our church members went to Times Square a few weeks ago. She was looking forward to all the sights and sounds of the season: sparkling lights, colorful decorations, joyful music, and great shopping. Indeed it was all of those things. But there was a disturbing moment as well.
As she passed through the square with her family, a forty-foot wide billboard flashed a message: “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody.” At the bottom was a website address: atheists.org.
It came as a bit of a shock, especially with her kids in tow. It was a few days before Christmas. The holiday pitch was high. And here was an animated message crossing out “Christ” with a big black X. No doubt about what it was saying: you can have a Christmas with Christ.
If we can put that in perspective, it’s not the first time somebody has said such a thing. About fifty years ago, C.S. Lewis observed what was happening in Great Britain. He wrote, “Christmas means three things. The first is a religious festival, important to Christians and of no interest to anybody else. The second is the popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality; nothing wrong with that. The third is the commercial racket which is a nuisance for everybody.”
Fifty years ago, Lewis knew it’s possible to have a Christmas without Christ. In many corners, the holy day has been demoted to a holiday. It has become an annual event where the other dimensions can have more significance than the original purpose.
Of course, it doesn’t help that, as holidays go, Christmas has a checkered past. Nobody knows the actual day Jesus was born; peasant families didn’t usually mark such dates. Pope Julius the First set the date on December 25, but that was three hundred fifty years after the actual event. Up until that point, there were all kinds of parties in late December, much like the annual bash that still happens on Times Square every December 31.
When the Puritans came along, they were so disgusted that they outlawed the celebration of Christmas. For them, it was a secular bash with only traces of Christian piety. The Puritans saw no way to redeem the holiday, so they ignored the birth of Jesus in December to focus on his death and resurrection, and left Christmas to the pagans. It wasn’t until the 1800’s when the Protestant church began to celebrate Christmas in any widespread way. That’s when a lot of our favorite songs were written, under the influence of Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens.
Lest we think Christmas has always been a big deal in America, that isn’t true. Christmas was not made a federal holiday until 1870. In fact, on December 25, 1789, the first year under our new constitution, Congress was in session.
What has changed for us, I think, is that the atheists are better organized, better funded, and louder than they have ever been. That’s a new situation for those of us who are regular church goers. Sure, our holy days have slowly lost their grip on our society. According to the latest statistics I have seen, seventy-eight percent of the people in this zip code are not going to a church on a Sunday morning. It’s probably not because they are out doing the Lord’s work.
And truth be told, if the atheists’ number are growing, as they say they are, some of those people used to go to a church – and for whatever reason, dropped out. I’ll bet one of the reasons why is that Christ was not obvious to them when they went to church and encountered other Christians.
I had a glimpse of that as I watched an interview about the Times Square sign on a particular news network that was scandalized that such a sign was up. They brought on the executive director of the Atheists group who put up the billboard, along with a man who was supposed to be an expert on proving the Christian faith. It was a jousting match. It began sarcastic and snarky. Pretty soon the two of them were yelling at one another. By the end, neither one was convinced of the other’s point of view.
So I wondered: what was the point of that? Television ratings, I imagine. There was a lot of huffing and puffing, and no obvious presence of Christ especially by the fierce defendant of Christianity. If the Gospel is ever going to get a hearing, it will happen when the Christians act like Christ. Just because you talk about Jesus doesn’t mean that he is ruling over your heart, directing your speech, or enlarging your heart.
And none of us should be the least bit surprised if we listen carefully to the Gospel text for today. What does the first chapter of John say? The world was created through him, but the world did not accept him. He came to his own people, and they did not receive him. Within the work of creation, God is both revealed and hidden. God comes to those who should recognize him, and his own people are the first to shrug him off. His own people.
For all the fussing about those anonymous people out there who don’t keep our holiday, the truth is the very Lord whose birth we honor is not always obvious – even to people who ought to know better.
I’ll never forget the first time it happened after I became a pastor. December 25 fell on a Sunday. People in my first congregation were all a-flutter. “What are we going to do?” Someone even called the church office and left a message. “Are you going to cancel worship on the Sunday, the 25th?” What amazed me is that his voice was completely sincere. He didn’t think Christmas should be celebrated in church. That struck me as so ironic. And it was the first time I really heard the text: “He came to his own people, and they didn’t receive him.
What is Christmas, really? Christmas is about welcoming Jesus, and sharing his light and life with everybody we know. The world doesn’t have to snatch away Christmas from us. But neither do we have to give it away.
A Christmas without Christ? If we listen to John’s Gospel, we hear about the deep human resistance to the very things that make us healthy. The hard truth is that a lot of people go about their lives pretending that they are making it under their own steam, never calling on God to come and make any constructive difference in what they do or how they treat others. Christ still comes to his own people, and some of his own people aren’t paying attention.
Maybe it’s because God does not come to us in smoke and fire and noise. God comes in the smallness of a child, in the vulnerability of an infant, in the humility of a dependent little baby. God comes as a child, dependent on others for his safety and nourishment. He comes as a child in poverty, a child of lowly status. It is no wonder that so many people simply miss him.
But he comes and he is still here. That is not something we have to enforce. This is not something to push on others. We bear witness to what we believe, live it to the best of our ability, and pray we ourselves will have eyes to see him.
Consider what we’re doing this morning. For many people, today might be the last hurrah of a winter vacation. A lot of people are sleeping in, but here we are, coming to the Lord’s Table to take the bread and the cup, to answer the question, “Is Christ present?” with the simple affirmation, “Yes, he is.” He is present as we sing and pray, as we take in his body and blood by faith. He is among us as we consider how we will guide us into a new year with love and generosity.
Nobody can take him away. He is with us whether we see him or not. And if we see him, we realize how God has become like us, in order that we might live under the influence of his deep grace and expansive truth.
In the birth of Jesus, God’s love has come. Hatred cannot snuff it out. In his work on the parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon talks about the catholicity of the Gospel. “Catholicity” comes from the word “catholic.” It has less to do with Christians from
as it has to do with
the universal presence of the good news. Capon says Christ is so central, so
important and great, yet so mysteriously present, that he remains at the center
of it all. He’s much bigger than the church. He is the yeast in the whole loaf
of bread, the mysterious substance that causes the dough to rise. Like it or
not, Capon wrote, Jesus is going to make all of us rise. Rome
And I, for one, believe there’s a lot more joy and pleasure and peace in life if we go searching for the presence of Jesus among us, rather than moan about those people for whom Christ is not a part of their Christmas. We are not the center of all things; God is. God sends Jesus into an antagonistic world with unrestrained generosity. God has no fear over whether or not people will receive him. No, God sends Jesus among us lovingly, never forcefully, never to compel, always to awaken.
Christmas is not the only day that belongs to Jesus. Every day is his. He rules over all. He is the ultimate judge over all. And he calls on us, not to live defensively or angrily or as if we are superior to everybody else, but to give away his mercy to everybody who needs it. If we give enough of that mercy away, some people will actually believe it.
Taste and see.