Christmas is far and away the favorite holiday of Americans. Its popularity crosses genders and generations. There’s nothing like this day of the year. Driving through Dallas yesterday, Janet and I noted the closed stores and empty streets as people spent the day with family and friends.
It’s a remarkable thing, the fact that our secular culture takes a day to remember the birth of Jesus. Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas. For some, the day is more like Saturnalia.
Here’s the difference.
Saturnalia was a pagan Roman festival timed to the winter solstice and marking the “birth of the sun.” It featured drinking, feasting, and much immorality, culminating on December 25. Over time, the church moved its celebration of Jesus’ birth to that date to replace hedonism with worship. (Jesus was likely born in the spring, since Luke 2:8 tells us that the shepherds were “out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”) By the eleventh century, Christians called their worship “Christ’s Mass,” or “Christmas.”
In some ways, yesterday’s holiday was more like Saturnalia than Christ’s Mass.
An artist in California made headlines when he produced Christmas ornaments depicting same-sex nativity scenes. In one, two Josephs are worshiping the Christ child; in the other, two Marys are doing the same. Meanwhile, British police arrested five people after a Christmas Eve party descended into a mass brawl. And seven people were shot to death in Chicago over the Christmas weekend, while at least twenty others were injured.
In a culture like ours, how can we experience and demonstrate the continuing relevance of the first Christmas?
One: Open God’s gifts by faith.
In Miracles, C. S. Lewis calls Christmas the “Grand Miracle.” Here’s why: by entering his creation, the Creator proved he could do anything in that creation he wished to do. We should not be surprised that Jesus could calm stormy seas or heal leprous bodies. A general can command any soldier under his authority.
Now Jesus wants to do in us what he did for us. Because of Christmas, God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus wants to heal our pain and calm our storms. And he wants to manifest his presence in the world through our compassion. But like all Christmas presents, his gifts must be opened by faith.
Two: Serve those Jesus came to serve.
Theologian John Gehring notes that Christmas shows the solidarity of Christ with us. He was homeless, born in a borrowed manger. He became a refugee when his family fled from Herod. He was an immigrant while living in Egypt. He then lived in poverty with his peasant parents in the tiny town of Nazareth.
Now he wants us to serve those he served. Martin Luther said to those who claimed they would have welcomed the baby Jesus: “Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.”
Three: Choose humility.
Lewis also observes that humility demonstrates greatness. Only a great teacher can teach a truly poor student. Only a great king can identify with each of his subjects. By choosing to become a helpless baby laid in a feed trough and worshiped by grimy field hands, Jesus showed the greatness of his humility and the humility of his greatness.
Now it’s our turn. Are you strong enough to admit your need of God’s strength? Are you humble enough to serve those in need? Will today be Saturnalia or Christ’s Mass for you?