This weekend, I will be joining millions of Christians in celebrating the holy days of Christmas (I should note that Orthodox Christians will be doing this on Jan. 6).
Although many of us will mix into the Christmas celebration the sharing of presents and family meals, at least for me and many others, Christmas is rooted in what we might call the sacred message of Christmas. Santa may have his place, but for me, without the message of Christ there is no Christmas.
When I join together with fellow church members on Saturday evening and again on Sunday morning, the message of Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us,” will ring out.
The promise of Emmanuel is laid out for us by the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who spoke to a people facing a great crisis of faith. The little kingdom of Judah faced the impending invasion of a powerful empire. Fear had gripped the people, and yet the prophet declared that a young woman would bear a child who would be known as Emmanuel, and this child, who was probably the soon to be born son of the reigning king, would stand as a reminder that God would had not abandon them in this time of great difficulty (Isaiah 7:14).
Later on, Christians would hear in this statement the promise the Christ, the one in whom God’s presence was revealed to the world. Although Christians often disagree as how this all works, I think we’re agreed that the story of a babe wrapped in blankets and lying in a feeding trough is a powerful reminder that God has not left us to our own devices. We may sometimes be surprised by the way in which God is present, but in the Christmas story, God’s presence is celebrated and acknowledged.
But it’s not enough just to acknowledge that God is present in this babe born in Bethlehem. The Christmas story also invites us to respond to the grace and love of God by reaching out to those around us, touching the lives of others, especially those most in need. I think it’s appropriate that in the story of Jesus’ birth, we’re not confronted by a child born in a palace, with all the luxuries of royalty, but that this one Christians acknowledge as Lord and Savior, is born to an impoverished family.
Indeed, as the Gospel of Luke tells it, an imperial census displaces the family, forcing them to travel while Mary, not yet married to Joseph but pregnant, is forced to travel south to Bethlehem, where she bears a child in a stable. Then there’s Matthew, who tells us of a jealous king who slaughters innocent children so as to destroy a possible rival.
These stories speak of powers that are not receptive to God’s presence, especially a God who is made known to them in and through the one Isaiah hails as “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Yes, for Caesar and for Herod – and too many others in our world – there is too much at stake to let peace and justice prevail in the land.
But as we attend to the Christmas story, both as spoken by the biblical authors or by one such as Charles Dickens, we hear a call to “live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 Common English Bible), that are committed to the pursuit of justice and peace for all.
Perhaps few of the classic Christmas stories are as pertinent today as that told by Dickens in A Christmas Carol. Set in 19th century Britain, when a rapidly-industrializing nation experienced the vagaries of income inequality that rivals what we see today in our country, Dickens called on his readers to let the full message of Christmas to transform their vision of life and their responsibility for the welfare of the other.
One of the more challenging moments of this story comes when Scrooge asks about the two children hiding under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost identifies the boy as ignorance and the girl as want, and the Ghost answers: “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing is erased.”
The question then as now concerns whether we will hear this harbinger of the future, and whether we will respond accordingly – not out of fear, but out of love of our neighbor as exemplified in the life and teachings of the one whose birth we celebrate at this moment. Scrooge heard the message, responded joyfully, and his life and the lives of those around him were changed.
Even as Dickens speaks of a life changed by a Christmas encounter, so we too have the opportunity to be transformed by our encounter with the Christ child, and in so doing we have the opportunity to live fully the Christmas spirit, for as Dickens points out in the closing of the book, Scrooge knew how to observe Christmas better than anyone. And if the letter to Titus is correct, this means living a life that is “sensible, ethical, and godly,” as we reject the “ungodly lives and desires of this world” (Titus 2:12 Common English Bible).
And lest we see in this word from the biblical text being little more than a moralistic focus on a few hot-button issues that have galvanized certain political interests, perhaps we can hear in this a broader message, one that we find revealed in the teachings of Jesus, that focuses our attention on working for justice for the poor, for the hungry, for the marginalized, as well as a call to pursue the peace of God in the world.
For those who choose to celebrate Christmas, I invite you to consider with me this broader message of the season – that God is truly with us and we are invited to share in God’s glory and in God’s work of peace and justice in the world.