By Pastor Glenn Pease
A pietistic Jewish priest once called his congregation together right in the middle of a working day. He sent youngsters out to announce to everyone in the community that they must come to the synagogue immediately. They called every housewife from her housework, every clerk from his counter, every working man from his labors, and every business man from his office that they might come into the sanctuary to hear the Rabbi's important message. When they had all assembled the Rabbi arose with great dignity and said, "I have an important, a very, very important announcement to make. Listen carefully that you may all hear it. There is a God in the world," he said, and then adjourned the meeting.
What a let down that must have been, and what a disappointment after their interest had been aroused. What a shattering of their expectations to make all that bother just to hear the commonplace fact reported that God is in the world. What a waste of time and a foolish interruption of life's schedule just to hear the obvious. This incident illustrates the problem Christians face every Christmas. The very heart of the Christmas message lies in the name Emmanuel which means God with us. In the babe of Bethlehem God invaded, not only time, but human flesh. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the most fascinating fact in all of history, but it can become so familiar to believers that it loses its power to produce wonder. The problem is not that the believer does not know the meaning of Christmas, but that he has difficulty in making that meaning meaningful.
How can we fill the old, old story with the wonder of its original glory? Children sense the wonder of it all-the announcement of the angels, the shining of the star, the worship of the wise men who traveled from afar-are all exciting revelations to their souls, but as we grow older the familiarity with the wonderful causes it to lose its luster. The glory becomes too dim to stimulate adoration and expectation. Wordsworth put it,
Trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home;
Heaven lies about us in our infancy;
Whither has fled the glory and the dream?
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
So many adults are heard to say that it just doesn't seem like Christmas. The cause for this is not only familiarity, but a perspective of life that makes it harder for the adult to concentrate on the wonderful and lose himself in the carefree world of joy. The children still fight and disobey. The dishes still get dirty and need washing. The milk still gets spilled, and planes still crash, and fires still burn, and all the troubles of life continue right on without taking a day off, even for Christmas. Familiarity with the marvelous and experience of the miserable combine to negatively alter our adoration and extinguish our expectation.
The question we must wrestle with every Christmas is, how can we rekindle in our hearts that great flame of expectation that burned in the hearts of men who looked at the birth of Jesus from the other side? What expectancy we find there. Mary was an expectant mother in more ways than one, for she knew she was giving birth to the Messiah. All Israel was expecting the Messiah's soon coming. All the world was looking for a Savior and Deliverer. The entire universe of intelligent beings was pregnant with expectation, for the angels themselves stood on tiptoe to see the birth of Emmanuel. Never in all eternity had such a wonder ever been of Deity becoming flesh. Here was the miracles of miracles.
That God should create the heavens and the earth is a logical act for one with almighty power and infinite wisdom, but that He should enter His creation and be born as a baby is a mystery beyond comprehension. It defies logic, and it depends on love completely. God so loved that He gave His only begotten Son. There is no other explanation for the marvel and the mystery of Christmas. How the angels must have tingled with expectation to behold this great event. How the shepherds must have ran to the stable with excited expectation to see the child the angels spoke of. How the wise men must have been filled with expectation as they patiently plotted along following the star that would lead them to the King of Kings. Expectation was a part of all those involved in the Christmas story. Walter C. Smith put it into poetry when he wrote,
Earth was waiting, spent and restless,
With a mingled hope and fear;
And the faithful few were sighing,
Surely, Lord, the day is near;
The desire of all the nations,
It is time He should appear.
You would think that the fulfillment of such a universal expectation would go on exciting people through all generations, and it has, but history has been as variable on this matter as it is in the individual life. One year we can be excited and then the next it can all be dull and drab. It all depends on which aspect of Christmas we center our thoughts on-the changeable worldly aspect, or the unchangeable Christian aspect.
In the early centuries Christ's birthday was not celebrated at all, and even in the fourth century some felt it to be sinful to celebrate His birthday like the pagans celebrated the birth of their kings and gods. Dec. 25th was a great day of celebration for the pagans. There was excessive drinking, dancing, gluttony, and spectacular plays. After much debate the church decided to use the custom of the Empire that it could not abolish by making it a Christian holiday. In about 350 A. D. the date of Dec. 25th was set as the day for the Feast of the Nativity. From that point on Christmas has been, as one put it, "A strange medley of Christian and pagan rites."
The pagan element has never been eliminated. During the Reformation Calvinists declared Christmas to be a mere human invention, and they disapproved of its pagan origin and excesses. When the Puritans came to power in England in 1642 they passed an act forbidding the celebration of Christmas, and Easter as well. Everyone was ordered to go on with work as usual. Shops were to stay open on Christmas Day, and no one was allowed to light Christmas candles, or to eat holiday cakes. The town crier went around on Christmas Ever shouting loudly, "No Christmas! No Christmas!" As might be expected such a law caused rioting in the streets, and ministers and their congregations were actually arrested for attending services on Christmas. When the Puritans lost control and the monarchy was restored under Charles II the old yuletide customs emerged from hiding and Christmas was again a gala affair.
Both traditions were brought to America, and both extremes have been in our land from the start. The Pilgrims who gave us our Thanksgiving despised Christmas. The men on the Mayflower worked all day on Christmas, and the next year after their landing in America Governor Bradford again insisted that they work and have no religious observance. It was a battle, however, for the traditions of Christmas were too strong. In 1659 the Pilgrims passed this law:
"Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense 5 schillings as a fine to the county." Twenty-two years later the law was repealed, and then five years after that Governor Andros conducted the first legal Christmas service in the Boston Town Hall.
All attempts to suppress the joy of Christmas have failed, and though we understand what motivated the attempt to halt paganism on this day, we cannot understand how Christians could by pass it and allow pagan perversions to kill the spirit of Christmas joy. History should make it clear to us that we cannot impose a Christian Christmas on the world, nor suppress their pagan Christmas. This ought not to be our aim. Our aim ought to be to honor Jesus as our Emmanuel. This is the unchangeable eternal truth that ought to excite us and be the center of our Christmas celebration.
Every year preachers rack their brains trying to think of ways to rescue this most marvelous message from the dullness of familiarity, and fill people with the brightness of expectation. One of the popular methods of doing this is by taking the negative approach of considering the question, what if Jesus had never been born? What if their was no Emmanuel, and so no assurance of the reality that God is with us? Phillips Brooks, the great preacher of Boston, once dreamed that Christ had not been born. He saw the world filled with sin and problems without an answer. There was no good news to proclaim to a world lost in darkness, and he wept when he awoke. Certainly as we consider the horror of a world without a Savior we cannot help but be impressed with the gratitude, wonder and joy that ought to be ours at Christmas. Martha Nicholson wrote,
Suppose that Christ had not been born
That far away Judean morn.
Suppose that God, whose mighty hand
Created worlds, had never planned
A way for man to be redeemed.
Suppose the wise-men only dreamed
That guiding star whose light still glows
Down through the centuries. Suppose
Christ never walked here in men's sight,
Our blessed Way, and Truth, and Light.
Suppose He counted all the cost,
And never cared that we were lost,
And never died for you and me,
Nor shed His blood on Calvary
Upon a shameful cross. Suppose
That having died, He never rose,
And there was none with power to save
Our souls from death beyond the grave!
If all that Christmas means was not true, our lost would be beyond measure, but the fact is, God is with us, and Jesus is our Emmanuel. The positive poet proclaims-
But, Jesus came! He came to earth,
And men beheld His manger birth!
The shepherds heard the angels sing,
The wise proclaim Him Lord and King!
He died, He arose; and by His blood,
We too become the sons of God;
We preach the Gospel in His name!
For Jesus came! Yes, Jesus came!
The negative fiction of, what if He had not come may stimulate gratitude, but the real joy, wonder and thrill of Christmas must be based on the positive fact of His coming, and a personal acceptance of that fact. If we will pause in our frantic race through life to give serious consideration to the fact that Christmas means God is with us in Christ, we will find it to be the most practical and exciting truth we can know. If God is with us, then the whole future is yet filled with expectation. All of life, even the commonplace, takes on greater meaning when the meaning of Christmas is consciously concentrated upon.
Our problem with the fact of Christmas is in making the objective truth of it subjectively true in our lives. An objective truth is not of full value to us until it becomes exciting and interesting. In fact, an objective truth may not even be true for us unless we are subjectively involved and excited about it. Truth must be interesting to be true for us. Professor Earnest Hocking of Harvard wrote, "A theory is false if it is not interesting. A proposition which falls on the mind so dully as to excite no enthusiasm has not attained to the level of truth. Though the words be accurate the impact has leaked away from them and the meaning is not conveyed. Whatever doctrine tends to leave men unstrung, content, complacent, and at ease, is a treachery and a deceit. We have to require of our faith not what is agreeable to the indolent spirit, but what is at once a spur and a promise." In other words, the objective truth of the Incarnation must become subjectively interesting to us, or it is not true for us.
It could be an objective fact that some unknown relative of ours has left us a million dollars in a bank in California. It could be in our name so that by a mere signing of our signature it could be ours. But if we never hear of this subjective fact, or if we hear but do not believe and get excited enough to act on it, it is really not true that we have a million dollars. It is objectively true, but until it becomes subjectively true the objective fact is on the same level as fiction. Jesus is our Emmanuel, but this tremendous fact is only trivial fancy, and this fabulous message is only fantastic myth to those who do not receive Jesus as Savior. It is so also for believers who do not consciously commit themselves to act on this truth.
Our joy and wonder and excitement, not only on Christmas, but all through life depends upon our belief in Emmanuel, and our action based on that belief that God is with us in all the battles of life. This is to be the battle hymn of all soldiers of the cross:
God is with us, God is with us,
So our brave forefathers sang,
Far across the field of battle
Loud their holy war cry rang,
Never once they feared or faltered,
Never once they ceased to sing,
God is with us, God is with us
Christ our Lord shall reign as King.
When the objective truth of God's presence in Christ becomes such a subjectively motivation in our lives, then we not only know but experience the meaning of Christmas the year around. God did not just visit us briefly and then depart again. He came to be with us, and to never leave or forsake us. The Coptic Christians of Ethiopia celebrate Christmas once a month except in March, just as we celebrate communion once a month. Both are saying the same thing, and that is that God is ever present with us in Christ. We do not have to manipulate God to bring Him near, for it was God's choice to come near in Christ. The fact that God choose to be with us in the form of a baby reveals the depth of His commitment to be one with us. He could have come as a dictator and taken control of our lives, but He came in humility to start at the bottom and work up just like all people have to do. Only in this way could God truly be our Emmanuel, for He became one with us in the experience of human growth.
The reality of God's presence in Christ grows as we call upon and depend upon His presence to accomplish His will in the world. Christmas becomes more meaningful as we live in the spirit of it all year long. Wilfred Grenfell after years of service as a medical missionary in Labrador wrote, "My convictions concerning the Christian faith were deepened as I labored to help those who were in need. The Presence grew brighter as I served in His name." Emmanuel takes us to a deeper level in relationship to God. We can know the revelation God has given, but the goal is to know Him and have a relationship with Him. It is not just knowing the Book, but knowing the author that is our goal. As Emmanuel He became our neighbor and friend. God was with men before Christmas, but on Christmas he became one with man on the human level. The highest goal and the greatest joy is to be able to celebrate Christmas knowing God in Christ as our Emmanuel.