Christmas Eve 2019

Today is sometimes called “The Nativity of the Lord,” and celebrations are underway around the globe. One of the joys of this age of Internet and instant news is that one can get news from another time zone and see how things are going in a place where the day is advanced beyond our time zone. It is nearly 11 pm in Australia, where we have friends. It is almost 9 pm in Japan where our daughter lives. We have a whole day ahead of us before it is that time here.

It isn’t just that we are participating in a celebration that is recognized around the world, it is also that we are celebrating an event that our people have been celebrating for millennia. There are deep layers of meaning that stretch back for generations and generations. As is true with much that we do in the church, we have and a tendency to simplify our interpretations in order to teach others. But Christmas is complex.

December 25 isn’t the actual birth day of Jesus of Nazareth. No one knows the exact day. The celebration of his birth wasn’t a part of the early years of Christianity. His death and resurrection were the focus of the most intense observances for hundreds of years. The choice of the December date and the rise of the celebration of Christmas was a product of many complex factors.

After Christianity became an accepted religion in Rome in 313 the church began to grow rapidly. Within ten years it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. People rushed to join churches. This rush brought about a shortage of priests and bishops and left people literally standing in line and waiting to join the church. The prior process of a six week period of education and preparation, offered during the season of Lent with only one day in the year when new members were officially made members of the church (Easter) was inefficient and didn’t allow for the influx of new members. A new holiday was needed, at a different time of the year with an appropriate period of penance and preparation.

Christianity was moving into new geography and encountering new cultural traditions. At first the Christian calendar followed the Jewish calendar exclusively. In the very earliest days of the church, some Christians considered making the religion exclusive to Jews. The admission of non Jews into the faith was controversial at first. Now, with official recognition from Rome, Christianity was expanding rapidly throughout Europe and being celebrated in northern European locations. There the faith encountered a variety of solstice celebrations that had been a part of the secular culture and the culture of other religions for centuries. These celebrations were deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of the people. At some point, church leaders made the decision that simply banning the holidays that came from outside the church would not be accepted by the members. Instead, they decided to celebrate Christmas at the time of the winter solstice in order to capitalize on the celebrations already being observed.

There are other anomalies about the date, including shifts in the date caused by the change from one calendar system to another, most notably when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. The new calendar, based on more precise observation of the movement of the the planets around the sun, introduced leap years and shifted dates. Christmas ended up on December 25 with the solstice landing on December 21. This shift was embraced at the time as a way of further separating Christian observances from secular celebrations.

In contemporary times, Christians often understand the birth of Christ in a couple of different ways. They think of the story as a kind of origin story for our faith, focusing on the short birth narrative exclusive to Luke’s Gospel. They imagine the events of long ago and far away when the child was placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn. They think of the angel’s announcement of the shepherds and the shepherds visit to the place of Jesus birth. When we think of Christmas that way, we tend to make a separation between ourselves and the lives we live and the story of our faith. Jesus was born to people who have long since died. It is a story of our past.

A second way that contemporary Christians understand the holiday is a deeply personal and often individualistic sense that Christ dwells in each of us and that we have experiences of coming to know Jesus as our personal Lord and savior. Like the stories of our past, this interpretation is genuine and an important theological concept.

Christmas, however, is also the understanding of the theological concept of incarnation. Incarnation is God coming to humans in a human body. Incarnation is more than a personal spiritual experience. It is a reality that is true for the entire community. Theologians remind believers that the practice of Christianity is the practice of community. From this perspective, Christianity is not something that can be fully celebrated alone. The incarnation occurs to a community of people and is an ongoing phenomenon. Christ is not only born long ago during a Roman census. God becomes human in the gathering of people. To fully experience this presence, Christians need to gather together. Ours is not only a private faith, but a coming together.

The special services we hold tonight are an expression of that faith. We gather to celebrate, and in doing so we honor ancient traditions. We remember the long ago and far away stories of our faith. We gather for individuals to experience a personal connection with God’s presence in the world. And we gather to receive the invitation for us to transform our communities through the power of God’s love. We gather to be reminded that feeding hungry people, healing the sick, comforting the grieving and welcoming strangers continues to be the work of Christ.

May our celebrations be as genuine as the love of God expressed in the miracle of incarnation.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!