Merry Christmas! We all say it. But do we really know what it means? Or has it become an innocuous, seasonal version of: Have a nice day? Let’s take a closer look. The “Merry” part is easy. Who doesn’t want to be merry, particularly as winter sets in? Christmas… that’s where the meaning gets trickier. It’s obviously a reference to Christ. But it has a deeper meaning. The Old English origin is Cristemaesse… a reference to the mass. So a Merry Christmas was a wish for a joyful Eucharistic celebration as the focal point of the day. Going a step further, the word mass has its origins in the Latin… missa… the same root as the word “mission.” And that is Christ’s constant charge to us… to go forth… to be on a mission… his mission… to join our lips and our lives in the prayer of the angels: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!
So with our focus on the origins and meaning of the day… and with due respects to Cindy Lou Who and all the fine folks down in Who-Ville… the Grinch did them a great big favor swiping all that Christmas loot. Only he probably should have kept it. Christians have to wonder: What transformed the Nativity… our remembrance of Christ’s birth… into an occasion to spend too much, eat too much and drink too much? How has God’s initial act of our redemption come to be celebrated by retail riots on Black Friday?
Perhaps we can blame it on the Victorians.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
At the risk of joining the Grinch and Scrooge and all the other seasonal sour-pusses, I’m tempted to say: So what! Has all the Christmas brouhaha added to the glory of God? Is Christ honored by the commercial orgy that surrounds Christmas? Perhaps we should go back to not celebrating at all? It’s no great loss. So this Christmas, let’s refocus our attention on where it belongs… on the birth of Christ… the incarnate God. And let the tinsel fall where it may.
Luke’s beautiful narrative is so familiar and so straightforward that our time here is better spent probing the significance of the event rather than embellishing on its details. Of all the wonders recorded by scripture, the singular significance of the Nativity is that in those unlikely circumstances God chose to become man… while remaining God. Let that sink in for a moment.
The God, so awesome that the ancient Hebrews would not even whisper his name, is suddenly among us. Emanuel has come… and he’s so much more than anyone could have expected. To save us… to shake us of our self-indulgence… to atone for every sin that ever was or will be… the love of God was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. And through him we are reconciled with God. We have a unique window into his purpose… an open channel for his love… and a perfect model of holiness to guide us in all things.
Even before the Infant could speak, the circumstance of his birth was his first sermon to us. Laid in a manger, surrounded by shepherds, God is telling us that his New Covenant will not be based on power and hierarchy. It will be based on service and sacrifice. The new paradigm will be love and humility, rather than micro-management of human behavior.
In this context, our challenge is not to keep Christ in Christmas. He’s not a seasonal ornament that we want included along with all the others. Christ isn’t “in” Christmas. Christ is Christmas. And his Nativity is integral to who he is. In the person of Jesus, God became like us, so that we could become more like him. Christmas is not an end in itself. It is a beginning… an initial event in the continuum of our redemption. Stripped of its Christian context, you might as well call it “The Holidays,” or more accurately: “The Year-End Door-Buster Sale and Over-Indulgence Festival.”
With all that said, nothing is bigger than the heart of Jesus. He wants us to be happy. So let’s deck the halls. Let’s trim the tree. Let’s hang the stockings. Let’s sing “White Christmas” right along with the carols. But first last and always… let’s remember the reason for the season… the joy of Christmas is in the miracle, not in the material… it’s in the mystery, not in the myths. The love of God is alive and among us… so that every year we can celebrate anew… Jesus Christ is born today.
And that is the Merry Christmas I wish you… a blessed and a joyful Christmas wrapped in the saving love of the new-born Christ.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
“Meister der Palastkapelle in Palermo 001” by Meister der Palastkapelle in Palermo Distributed by Via Wikimedia Commons