What is the message of Christmas?
In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel released a song entitled “7 O’clock News/Silent Night”. As they were singing “Silent Night”, the news was broadcast in the background, slowly getting louder and eventually became louder than the song. I don’t know if either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel commented on the song, but it was clear that the message of Christ’s birth was getting drown out by the news of the world.
Along the same vein, someone might record the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” But the message of Christmas that we might hear will be a similar one, a message of the trouble, the violence, the hatred, the greed and commercialism that seems to dominate the world today. And what I fear is that for many people, if they hear the message of Christmas at all, this will be the message of Christmas.
Some people, of course, do not hear the message of Christmas but, then again, they are not listening for it. They have their own faith traditions and stories and Christmas is not a part of that story. And it would be wrong for those who hear the message of Christmas to expect others to listen, for respect for all people was and should still be part of the message of Christmas.
To hear the message of Christmas, you must, at some point, believe in Christ. There are those who don’t hear the message because they don’t believe in God, no matter what the faith story may be. For these individuals, Christmas is merely another name for Saturnalia, a pagan festival at the time of the winter solstice, which the early church co-opted in the name of Christ.
If one studies the history of the early church and the history of Christmas, we know that the story of Christmas did not occur in the darkness of the winter solstice but more likely in the early Spring. The selection of the time of the winter solstice may have been to distract many people from other celebrations but it was also just as important to not distract from Easter (which is my hypothesis).
But many of those who deny the existence of any god still celebrate Christmas but what message are they hearing? But while they may not believe in God, Christmas, or what it truly means, they do, I believe, get upset when they do not get their fair share of the presents given out. Some of these individuals have created their own quasi-Christmas to justify the need for presents, gifts and celebration. This is a one-day message, a message that has no meaning tomorrow or the day after; there will a new message to take its place.
But the message of Christmas was never about the presents one receives or a measure of one’s worth in terms of presents received. It is about understanding why presents were given to the baby Jesus in the first place and what those presents foretold for Jesus’ life and later mission to us.
So, what is the message of Christmas? Sadly, many people today who proclaim themselves to be Christian cannot tell you what that message is. The message they hear in church is a combination of many distinctly different messages, designed by individuals who either do not want others to learn or do not want to learn themselves.
The message of Christmas given by so many is one that speaks highly of material gain and personal power.
It is a message of convenience, it is a message that echoes the words of Gordon Gecko, that “greed is good”. It is a message that says Christ’s birth is a triumph of rich over poor and power over weakness. It is a message that proclaims exclusiveness and hatred, and that only certain people are entitled to the riches and the power that comes from following Christ. It is a message that say one must and can only say “Merry Christmas” during this season of many holidays and celebrations. And if you do not accept this message as the one true message, then you must be opposed to Christmas and you must be defeated in this peculiar “war on Christmas.”
To hear the true message of Christmas, we must open our minds as well as our hearts. We have all grown up and we teach the Bible in such a way as to believe there is one Christmas story when there are two (one in Matthew, where the Magi are the focus) and one in Luke (where we hear of the shepherds).
This is a simple story but as we grow in age, we must also grow in wisdom as well. We must at some point in our life understand the world into which Jesus was born. We must understand why it was that the shepherds were first to be told and why the Magi, no matter when they arrived, are also part of the story (I discussed this a few years ago in “A Personal Evolution of Christmas”).
The shepherds were the first to hear the message of Christmas because they were not the rich or powerful. Rather, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were among the lowest of society. Their work made them virtual outcasts in society and kept them barred from the Temple. The religious, political, and economic elite then would never have imagined that the lowest of society would be the first, expect the news of the Messiah to be given to them first (even when the prophecies told otherwise).
The arrival of the Magi (and we really don’t know how many there were; we use three because of the gifts mentioned in Matthew’s story) tells us several things. For Matthew, the gifts of frankincense and myrrh spoke of Christ’s death to come, for Matthew was writing his Gospel after the fact and not while it was occurring. That the Magi came was also a statement that the message of Christmas was going to be for the whole world and not just the people of Israel. I would like to think that Matthew was also making a subtle statement that the message of Christmas was about the mind as much as it was about the heart.
The Magi represented science in its beginning forms and to exclude the search for knowledge would be to limit the message of Christmas.
So, the true message of Christmas is more than a simple story and it is certainly not about power, greed, or exclusiveness. Rather it is just the opposite of what so many hear.
And when we speak of those who hear the message of Christmas, we must remember that many people do not want to hear a message that speaks in those terms for the darkness of the season only amplifies the pain and loss in their soul. Messages that speak of personal triumph merely remind many of what they do not have.
The true message of Christmas is one that brings a new light into the world, a light that will grow in time and will encompass the world. It speaks of hope, at a time when the world needed hope and needs hope today. It is not a message limited to one individual or one group but to all individuals, even if they do not believe or want to believe. And while there may not be many proclaiming this message, there are a few who do. And as they tell this message of Christmas to their friends, and lead a life that exemplifies the meaning of the message and the story of Christmas, others will hear it.
And just as the message grew from the back roads of the Galilee through the efforts of the early church, so too will the message grow today.
The true message of Christmas is that in the darkness and despair of the world around us, in a world of hatred and violence, in a world where many are excluded, a child was born. And with the birth of the Christ Child, a light that can never be extinguished began to shine. It was and is a light that brings hope and promise to all mankind.