Merry Christmas

The primary source of the story we tell at Christmas is the Gospel of Luke. It is our tradition to read the second chapter of that Gospel, which begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria.”

329 miles - or less than the distance from Rapid City to any city with a population larger than ours - north of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, was the great trading center of the Syrian empire: Aleppo. Quirin′i-us’ trade capitol, like the tiny hamlet where the Christ Child was born, was, at the time, part of the Roman Empire. It was a thriving city that was vital to the operation of that empire - so much so that it is used as a way of noting the timing of the birth of Jesus.

Today that city, is mostly in ruins, thousands of its inhabitants have been maimed and murdered. Thousands more of them have been dispersed to any place that will take them and some have ended up in places where they are not welcome. It is a tragedy of global proportions - a part of a global crisis of refugees that is unprecedented.

The child whose birth we celebrate in this season was a Jew, born to a Jewish mother. He, like the other children in his family, was the product of centuries of Jewish thought and debate over the deepest questions of life. He was dedicated in the temple and raised according to the ways of his people and their religion. Later, after he became an adult and a teacher and was cruelly executed by the Roman authorities who were quick to hand out the death penalty. After he was raised from death by the glorious hand of God, another new religion came from the fertile minds of the scholars of that region. That religion became known as Islam and its followers call themselves Muslim. In that religion Jesus is revered as a prophet. Those who follow that religion are taught to respect and honor the teachings of Jesus. They revere the Bible of the Christians as sacred scripture.

To others, and that includes me and the members of the congregation that I serve, Jesus is know to be fully divine - the messiah - the savior of the world. We honor his words as critical lessons for the living of our lives. We understand his life as the turning point of all of history. We fully believe that Jesus spoke the truth when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, . . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . the pure of heart . . . the peacemakers.”

There are other words of Jesus, that shape our lives as well. It was Jesus, after all, who taught us this:

“ ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ ”

It was Jesus who taught us in no uncertain terms the response we are called to make to those hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned strangers from that city in Syria who are calling out to the world for compassion. It was Jesus who taught us how to respond to strangers. Yet, few of these strangers are being welcomed by our own country - fewer than by our far less populous neighbor, Canada, whose people have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to aid and support them. Blessed indeed are those people, for they are demonstrating their understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

Every Christmas I receive a few greetings that encourage us to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” Actually, I am not aware that we had removed the Christ from Christmas. Our congregation and the people I serve are unapologetically Christian in the midst of a nation where we enjoy and regularly exercise the freedom to wish others a merry Christmas. It is true that there are some very silly evasions of the deeper meaning of this holiday and there are plenty of very uninspiring greeting cards and more than a few office parties that seem far distant from the true meaning of the season. But ours isn’t exactly like the culture of early Christians who endured nearly three centuries of hiding in Roman catacombs before their religion became mainstream and they were allowed to practice their faith openly without fear of reprisal and persecution. We have the freedom to believe, act and proclaim our faith.

What we must remember, however, is that our actions speak far louder than our words. If we are to be serious about putting Christ into Christmas, we can do no less than celebrating his birth by demonstrating his teachings in the way we treat “the least of these my brothers.” And it is our actions that will be judged by God.

The baby whose birth we celebrate today has lessons for all of us. More than a few of those lessons are difficult. They demand of us sharing and sacrifice. They invite us into communion with those who are different from us. They reject our culture of consumerism and offer the freedom of life without worrying about what we wear or what food we will eat trusting that God will provide. They are even unconcerned with the rate of our taxes: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Merry Christmas to all! May it be the season of renewed commitment to living the lessons that Jesus taught.

Copyright (c) 2016 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!