26. December 2012
St. Stephen’s Day
Most people hate Christmas. They don’t hate the sentimental Christmas of Bing Crosby, nor the commercialized Christmas of holiday jingles, and not even the cheesy Christmas of baby boomer TV specials. Most people love the Christmas that leads up to December 25th including its anticipation, feasting, and gifts. No, what they hate the Christmas of the Gospel.
Jesus doesn’t care about your feasting, your gifts, your hopefulness. His holy day is not about merriment, sweetness, or nostalgia. Jesus is the reason for the season the church sign reads. And what reason? As the hymn says, “born that man may no more die” or “born as God-man to die and rise that man may die and rise in Him.” If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, then Christmas is about receiving Jesus. If the world truly loved Jesus it would keep His Word sacred and gladly hear it on Jesus’s own feast day. If humankind loved Christmas they would come to His home and dwell with Him there.
It’s not all that difficult to grasp really. Christmas is Christ’s mass—a feast of Christ, given by Christ, and giving Christ. That is, Christmas is about receiving the Christ once wrapped in swaddling clothes, then crucified and buried, wrapped again this time in a burial shroud. When this gift was unwrapped on Easter morning, the good news went to the ends of the world. Salvation is yours in Christ. Forgiveness is yours in His body and His blood. New life is yours in the waters flowing from His side.
Contrary to this reality many have spent decades trying to recreate their idyllic Christmas vision largely inspired by Norman Rockwell. All their family and friends come ready, cheerful, and dressed for the occasion. Their churches are filled with the sound of Christmas favorites. The roast is well-prepared. All the exquisitely wrapped gifts surround the towering tree, glittering with lights abundant. No expense or craft is spared to make this Christmas “perfect.”
It all sounds quite nice. And then life pulls the rug out from under you. Last week a man under my pastoral care asked that we keep a former coworker’s family in our prayers. His wife had died a year ago and now He died, leaving behind two grown daughters. Of these two it was said: “now they are left all alone.” This sentiment rings especially true at Christmas where our celebrations often involve family and friends. For those two children, the death of both parents in a span of year will no doubt “ruin” their Christmas. There is now no hope for the Norman Rockwell vision to be realized. Two empty chairs will always be at the table.
You see how our hopes and aspirations are easily shattered when grounded on some unattainable Christmas perfection? No wonder that a 2010 report noted that “45% [of Americans] are having difficulty getting in the holiday spirit.” (http://witness.lcms.org/pages/wPage.asp?ContentID=1169&IssueID=61) Despite 96% of Americans celebrating at Christmas in some way, the real reason for Christmas often goes unnoticed or worse yet rejected. Unnoticed when overwhelmed by the Christmas schlock and rejected by unbeliever and marketeer alike.
Our own fanciful expectations for Christmas run contrary to what Christ expects. This is the reality of the Gospel. It is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentile. We obstinately prefer sappy carols to bold confession in Christmas hymns. We want a weak and passive Jesus even at Christmas. We’d rather sing songs that even Mormons can sing than let the Gospel ring out in its truth and purity.
The church is always fighting this battle for faithfulness. At times she slips into emotionalism or rationality. And then the LORD sends to her prophets, wise men, and scribes to call the church back to repentance. In effect, these men of God call the church celebrating Christmas to return to Christ. This never goes well for them. Some are killed and crucified. Others are flogged and sent packing (in the LCMS called “CRM status.”) And not too far away and perhaps in the not too distant future here in this land righteous blood is shed on the earth.
Our world is rapidly hurtling toward another non-Christian era. We will likely see and hear of more and more St. Stephens who will be martyred for their faith. Pastors and laypeople alike will be abused, slandered, and even murdered for their confession. These are dear Christians who celebrate Christmas in boldness and truth. They sing “Hark the Herald” and “Joy to the World” before unbelievers. They confess “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” to the secular Christmas world. How will they be received? Poorly.
The city of Jesus’s day understood this truth. The greatest prophet, Wisdom incarnate, and the Word Himself arrived proclaiming forgiveness of sins and the kingdom of God. His church would have rather the sentimental Passover meal, the speculative songs of their synagogues, and the easy-once-a-year-visit to the temple of the LORD. He comes with a feast from heaven, songs of angels, and an eternal abiding presence. What did they do to Him for not meeting their expectations for a “perfect” Christmas?
They flogged him. Persecuted him from town to town. Killed and Crucified him. His blood was spilled and mixed with poor Abel’s blood. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate.”
What did they get for ignoring the real reason for their holy season? The same thing we do. A Christ-less Christmas. If we’d have Jesus meet our traditions, emotions, or fallen reason rather than He conform our expectations to His Word, He’s bound to leave this house desolate. There’s only one “perfect” Christmas and its receiving the perfect one Jesus as He has deigned to give Himself.
It is another miracle of Christmas that Jesus forgives even our misguided attempts to find hope, joy, and peace outside of Him rightly preached and received in liturgy and song. As children of God, we ought to be moved to seek and receive the Word in its fullness and purity. Why? Because the hopes and dreams of mankind always crumble under the weight of the world and shatter in life’s tragic moments. No, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the perfect God-child, our dear Christ. He doesn’t do this with sentimentality but with bread from heaven and body and blood given and shed.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church