Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Have Yourself an Enormous Little Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2014
William G. Carter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Among all the songs of the season, this year one song has returned over and over. It’s not a particular favorite of mine, especially when the clock radio on my wife’s side of the bed presents it before dawn. But I have heard it a number of times in December. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It is one of the few secular Christmas songs that wasn’t written by a Jew. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” Johnny Marks composed “Rudolph.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written by Hugh Martin, and introduced in a 1944 movie by Judy Garland. She sings it to a sad little girl who doesn’t want to move from Saint Louis to New York.

A lot of people like that song, although it’s never been one of my favorites. Martin wrote down the melody and worked with it for a few days, before crinkling up the manuscript and tossing it in the wastebasket. Another songwriter said, “Try it again, it has potential,” so Martin pulled it out of the trash, straightened it out, and kept working at it. Judy Garland thought it was too dreary at first and requested a rewrite. And it became a hit, sung by no less that Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Garth Brooks, James Taylor, and the rock band Twisted Sister.[1]

But I have never really cared much for the song. Not just because the lyrics are sentimental, or that the harmony is rather dull. My difficulty is the word “little.” For a night like this, that song isn’t big enough.

I know we gather tonight in honor of the “little Lord Jesus.” But his birth is announced in the context of emperors and kings. Luke the storyteller wants us to know that Caesar Augustus is merely a pawn in God’s plan to have the Messiah born in King David’s hometown. Quirinius was only a glorified tax administrator, compared to child who would be King of Kings.

And that choir of angels, singing to the shepherds? It was a battalion of heaven’s warriors, a “host” of awesome angels, not a handful of friendly cherubs. The birth of Jesus was an enormous cosmic event. It was big.

Yet it was little, too. He was a human child, just like the rest of us. There were no trumpets to announce him. The church that now marks the spot would not be built for another 325 years. The halo over his head would be painted about 400 years later. It is hard for us, for whom Christmas is a big commercial racket run by an Eastern syndicate, to even imagine how small the scene actually was.

That was the sign it was true, said the angel to the poor shepherds. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is to be found where the animals are sheltered and fed. He is wrapped in bands of cloth, just like every other peasant child. God has come, the child looks like the rest of us.

Christmas is this paradox of great and small held together, “the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.” Glory to the newborn, “the newborn King.” Do you hear it? “Christ the Savior … is born.”

This paradox offers a model for authentic faith. To hear some people talk about “spirituality,” it’s this large, foggy cloud that doesn’t really have anything to do with poverty, farm animals, or diapers. At the same time, for those who fuss only about the rituals, the rules, and the annual routines can’t see how enormous the whole thing is. God is found among the peasants. That is explosive news. Heaven is concerned with earth. Daily life matters eternally. Everything large and small fits together, and all of it is available to God.

One of my teachers said, “The truth of the Incarnation is that God concerned with everything.” There is no aspect of our lives which is detached from holiness, for the Christ has come into the middle of it all. In the words of the ancient church, “In him, all things hold together.”[2]

It is exactly as the baby Jesus would grow up to say. Think of it this way: God’s rule over our lives is like the smallest of mustard seeds. It’s so small you can hardly see it, but it grows so large that it takes over everything else.[3] That’s the promise of Christmas, not that it is merely a day on the calendar but an event that changes the world. Something as small as a child’s birth grows to be as great as God’s claim over an entire planet.

Have Yourself An Enormous Little Christmas. That’s how I want to sing it. What happens tonight can affect the rest of our lives. It can bless the entire world, as long as we decide that it is just that big. It can be, you know. It can start here and it can grow.  

That’s how Howard Thurman saw it. He was a civil rights leader and a Christian mystic, and he loved Christmas. Here’s what he says about “The Work of Christmas” -

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.[4]

Jesus Christ is born. God is found among us. Have yourself an enormous little Christmas!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Colossians 1:17
[3] Mark 4:30-32
[4] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

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