I didn’t post much during 2015, in part because things going on in the world that required more attention. As bad as the year began, it appears to be coming to a better close, and that is perhaps the best reason to celebrate this Christmas.
I will be trying as the old saying goes, “with the Good Lord willing and if the creek doesn’t rise,” to resume a regular Sunday publication schedule. Look for “What I Believe” and “Seeing The Future” to be posted sometime next week (the pages are up but only as a “place-holder”).
Christmas for me has been a variety things. Though not many, there were Christmas spent at my grandparent’s homes in North Carolina and Missouri (my first Christmas was in Lexington, North Carolina in 1950 and was marked by my baptism at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church on 24 December 1950; see “My Two Baptisms” for thoughts on the idea of infant baptism.)
Christmas for the Mitchell family was often times a celebration of the family wherever my father happened to be stationed. And despite the thought that snow on Christmas would be nice, it was not until I lived in Minnesota from 1991 to 1993 that I experienced such a Christmas.
Sometime in the 1960s I began to express the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge might have had the right idea about Christmas. Of course, most people objected to this characterization of the season, seeing Mr. Scrooge as the bitter and mean business man. But when you read “A Christmas Carol”, you know that as a result of the visits the Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the story was not the same individual he was at the beginning of the story. I have never read any critical analysis of the story so I don’t know what Dickens’ thoughts were in his writing this story but it does, at least to me, show the transforming power of Christmas.
I sometimes, especially in these days, wonder if we have forgotten this critical point in our celebration of the day and the season. I fear that we have forgotten the reason for Christmas and have transformed it into a sectarian business ritual that requires our utmost devotion in order to save our country but not our souls.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I like getting presents just as much as the next person but over the years I have come to, at least privately, look to what took place in Bethlehem and Nazareth some two thousand years ago as more important.
And the nature of what took place then has also changed in a way that helps me to better understand why Christ came to this earth as a child and what it meant then and what it means today.
I know that when I was young, I accepted the Christmas story that is told each Christmas eve. But I now know that there are two decidedly different Nativity stories and that a true expression of the Christmas story must take at least two weeks because the wise men were not there at the birth but arrived a few weeks later. (But try taking the wise men out of the nativity scene on the altar or on the front lawn of the church.)
And while it may be popular to characterize Mary as a young, unwed mother, she was betrothed to Joseph which meant that a wedding was in the plans. I don’t think that there is anyone today who doesn’t understand the joy and fear that Mary must have felt nor the possible anger that Joseph might have felt. But we know that both Mary and Joseph had a sense of relief to know what was taken place though it would have been nice to have known what conversation took place between the two of them during those months before the trip to Bethlehem.
I have noticed a few posts on social media that characterize Joseph and Mary as a homeless refuge family (as a political statement for the many “Christians” who would want this country to turn away refugees from the Middle East). True, in a few short weeks, Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus will become political refuges but that doesn’t occur until after the visit of the wise men and the anger of Herod.
How do we see the birth of Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem? Was it just Joseph and Mary along with the various animals? Or were their others present as well?
For me, the key to this question is found in the reason for the visit to Bethlehem. We are told that a census was being taken and that all were to go to their home town, which for Joseph was Bethlehem. Now we also know that Bethlehem was so crowded that there was no room in the inn. Everyone who had come to Bethlehem were in some way related to Joseph, so Jesus was born during a family reunion and I am certain that among his cousins, aunts, and uncles were enough people present to assist in His birth. So I have always seen Jesus being born in a crowd and not alone as we sometimes think.
I know that some critics don’t like the selection of December 25th as Christmas, arguing that it was an attempt by the early church to co-opt a pagan festival. And that’s true but they had to have a date and a date in March or April that was more likely to be correct (based on the notion of the shepherds in the field) would ultimately collide with the observance and celebration of Easter.
The selection of a December date for Christmas speaks more to the point of Christ’s birth than simply a repackaging of an old pagan festival. In what are the darkest physical days of the human soul, we find the Birth of Christ as a light that begins to shine and bring hope to a world of trouble and despair.
Let us remember that the first to be told of Jesus’ birth (outside of his extended family) were the shepherds. Shepherds were considered the lowest of society and often times not welcome. And yet, the angels told them first that someone cared about them. This message would be constantly repeated throughout Jesus ministry, telling all those who society had forgotten or thrown away that they had not been forgotten.
The story of the wise men (however many there might have been) tells us two things. First, the gifts that were given were an indication of what would happen to Jesus. The frankincense and myrrh were valuable gifts used in the preparation of the body for burial. What strange gifts to give a new-born infant unless you knew, as the writer of Matthew knew, the outcome of His life. The gold would be used to finance the families trip from Nazareth to Egypt when Herod had his massive temper tantrum.
And, from a personal note, however you wish to translate the terms that give us “wise men” and “Magi”, you have to see in their visit an acknowledge that science is a part of our lives as much as faith and religion should be. As I have written before, these individuals were more than astrologers because from the efforts of those individuals and counterparts would come the basis for modern science and mathematics.
Let us remember that Christmas is more than a single day on the calendar but rather a two-week period of time from December 25th to the arrival of the wise man in January. Sure, we might take down the tree and put away the decorations on the 26th but let us not stop the celebration and let us use this time of Christmas to remember why Christ came and to help others to seek the joy, hope and peace that He brought to this world.