Are you all ready for Christmas? I surely am! Nothing beats getting all set for this than hearing Christmas songs by Ringo Starr, REO Speedwagon, Pearl Jam, and even a heavy metal version of We Three Kings!
I last did a Christmas Eve sermon in 2011, and you know what—things haven’t changed much with the traditions and celebrations of Christmas since then. So, I reviewed that sermon and am giving you all an update report about Christmas since then.
We still have several unique Christmas traditions here at St. Mark’s!
1) Displaying the Christmas tree in the worship space—for many years it was supplied by the Stewart family. Why a Christmas tree in the church--actually a secular, not religious item? Because trees are symbols of life, and truly represent Montesano (the tree farm town). [Yes, I know our tree is artificial now, practical reasons—it is the symbol that counts!]
2) Buying poinsettias to decorate the church for Christmas Eve—these used to be in memory of loved ones from Christmas Eves in the past! (This year, we just bought several of them, and you can remember others through them if you want.)
3) For several years now, either having a short Blue Christmas service at the last Bible study day before Christmas, or at least mentioning it to remind us and pray for those whose Christmas might not be so merry.
4) Preparing the cradle with strips of cloth and singing “Cloth for the Cradle” on the last Sunday before Christmas Eve. (This year we did this to a new song we learned yesterday!)
5) Singing “Silent Night” near the end of the Christmas Eve service with the lights turned down and everyone holding candles.
These are all pretty unique traditions—they represent our own expression of faith and memories at Christmas.
This story of the birth of Jesus we all know about is uniquely told in the gospel reading from Luke we read each year at this service. Matthew’s gospel describes only simply that Jesus was born after giving a lot of detail about Mary and Joseph and how Jesus was to come into the world. The gospels of Mark and John do not even mention the story of Jesus’ birth.
Yesterday at Sunday worship the “Psalm” reading was “The Song of Mary” and the Gospel reading was about Mary being told by the angel that she, although a virgin, would become pregnant and have the baby Jesus. And tonight we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. Hey--only a day apart from conception to birth! This birth of Jesus IS truly a miracle, so I guess anything is possible!
Luke says that the angel told the shepherds all about the young child born in Bethlehem, and they hastened to go and see the baby Jesus and proclaim what they had been told. They indeed found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. They told everyone what they had heard about this child; and all who heard it were amazed. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart, and the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
Some things don’t change! In 2011 I said in that sermon: “At times it seems like we are just a nation of complainers. We are at this “most wonderful time of the year”, the celebration of Christmas, and instead we hear way too much about the “attacks on Christmas”: Christmas commercialism--the early push to begin Christmas gifts selling, and displaying Christmas decorations very early--and then taking them down the day after Christmas. All those Christmas gift sales up to the last minute, and then the mega “after-Christmas” sales after Christmas Day. And, all those complaints about using Xmas instead of Christmas, and using Happy Holiday instead of Merry Christmas.” This all still occurs today –and more! I have even seen complaints about gingerbread cookies and what gender they are!
Then, and now, those complaints are truly overblown and basically just distracting; they are not even new issues, as we’re led to believe. These issues have been around for about 200 years. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (popular from its first line—“Twas the Night Before Christmas”). This poem made very popular the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume real economic importance. This started the original conflict of the holiday's spiritualism and its commercialism that has escalated to this day. Who hasn’t seen the movie “Miracle on 34th Street”, made in 1947; that was all about commercialism and Santa Claus and had nothing to do with God, but it is a beloved Christmas movie.
The "X" for Xmas comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word spelled Χριστός, translated as "Christ". An early use of "Xmas", "X'temmas", dates to 1551. Lord Byron used the term “Xmas” in 1811, as did Lewis Carroll in 1864. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. used the term in a letter dated 1923. Since at least the late 1800s, "Xmas" has been in use in various English-language nations.
The word holiday derived from the notion of "Holy Day", and gradually evolved to its current form. It comes from the Old English word hāligdæg. Holiday originally referred only to special religious days, like Christmas, but can now mean any special day of rest or relaxation, as opposed to normal days away from work or school. I think that using “Holiday” instead of Christmas Day still recognizes the holy aspect of that day, and can allow for those of other faiths or no faith to participate without offense.
I still have my own complaint—why does celebrating Christmas seem to end on Christmas Day? What about the 12 days of Christmas—“the 2 Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree”? Wikipedia tells us this: Christmas (which means "Christ's Mass") is a holiday that is celebrated on December 25. It is a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. Christmas Day has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.”
The Christmas season actually ends at Epiphany, on January 6th. [That’s why the Wise Men/Three Kings are in the back of our church on that shelf until January 6th.]
Regardless of all these so-called threats to the spiritual Christmas, just as Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the words of the shepherds, all who have been exposed to the Christian faith at all know the original reason for this Christmas season. [About 70% of people in America say they are Christian—down from near 80% just 10 years ago, but most everyone else has been exposed to the Christian faith at some time.] The first reason for Christmas is because Jesus was born into this world to be one of us, to show us the true love of God, and the way to live and treat each other.
In America, and around the world, we all know why there is Christmas--and I do not believe that will change. Generally, what Americans might consider changing is our crazy focus at Christmas on all the spending for so many extra things not really needed. Last year people in the US spent about $688B for Christmas and it is projected to be about $719B for this year—a $31B increase; it only would take about $20B to provide clean water for the entire world, or to help with poverty and other social issues here at home.
We can change what we do at Christmas--our traditions, our customs, our gatherings and who we celebrate with—Christmas will always be in our hearts about the birth of Jesus, and we will continue to celebrate this holiday joyfully! So, let’s all just ignore that which frustrates us about Christmas—and enjoy this service, each other, our family and friends, pray for and help those with less to celebrate this season, and joyfully remember why we are celebrating this holiday--over the next twelve days!