“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory.” John 1:14
What began in Bethlehem as an incarnation traveled to Jerusalem where it became an experience; from there it went to Antioch where it became good news. From there it was carried to Athens where it became a theology. Then it was on to Rome where it became an institution. From there it traveled to Europe where it became a culture, and finally it has crossed the Atlantic to the United States where it has become a commercial enterprise.
There! I’ve said it! Do you feel badly now?
This time of year, we preachers are given to decrying the way people choose to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ. Why, it’s not a celebration, but a sale-a-bration! A frenzied buying, selling, overeating, and merriment that has very little to do with Christ’s nativity. And to hear some of us preachers talk you’d think there is a wee bit of Scrooge in us— “Christmas? Bah, humbug!”
Did you know there was a time in Puritan England and America of the 1600’s when Parliament made it illegal to celebrate Christmas? No one was permitted to light a candle, burn the yule log, make mince pie or give and receive gifts.
Today, I want none of that action. Instead of ranting and raving about what is, I’d rather be positive. I’d rather be helpful, practical, and encouraging.
Look at it this way. When one peels an onion, he immediately notices layer upon layer. And the deeper one goes the more the tears flow. Christmas is like that. It has 2,000 years of layers around it now. And to get to its real meaning, we must each celebrate by peeling off the layers. But unlike peeling an onion that brings tears, peeling Christmas brings greater and greater joy.
If we begin peeling Christmas right here in the United States then we have to begin with its commercialization.
Isn’t it ironic that we celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace by giving our children nuclear submarines, exact replicas of assault rifles, grenades, and Rambo outfits? A grandmother who’d been shopping all day with her five year old granddaughter allowed the child to visit Santa. After politely listing her wants, Santa gave the child a piece of candy. As the child walked away, the grandmother encouraged, “Now, Nancy, what do you say to Santa?” The little girl paused, looked thoughtful for a moment, and said, “Charge it!” Then there was the conversation parents overheard between their grade school children. Jeff said, “There is a Santa Claus, too! Mom and Dad would never buy us all these toys!”
So, do we decry all this as crass commercialization?
I must confess. I enjoy my compact disc, my VCR, and new wool gloves. I love to go get lost in a crowd, enjoy the music and the shopping. And I look forward to playing Santa for many children.
All of this, too, sure is good for the economy. Some businesses do as much as 70% of their year’s business between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And thank God for jobs, good business, the economy, and paychecks.
One researcher took the time to add up the cost of the gifts in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” One pear tree costs $14. One partridge is $26. $15 for two turtledoves. $37 each for three French hens. $79 for four calling birds, five gold rings (14K) cost $1300, and six geese laying round out at $1260. And so on. The tab for twelve days of Christmas giving to one’s true love totaled over $12,000!
Now, all of this spending is a fine thing. But we must remember that it is not Christmas.
The next layer we come to is culture or tradition. And it is amazing how much our Western culture is steeped in Christianity. Four or five European flags— like England’s— have a cross in them. Our western calendar divides time from the date of His birth— B.C. and A.D. Our government has the checks and balances of power of a New Testament church. Even our legal system is built upon the Ten Commandments. And this time of year even secular comic strips carry a Christmas theme. Why, one would have to leave the planet to get away from Christmas traditions!
Most of our homes will have at least one poinsettia this season. Why? Because it’s a tradition! Joel Poinsett was a botanist from Greenville, S.C. In 1825, he became the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While on duty there he noticed a gorgeous flower growing wild on the hills around Taxco. Bright red, blooming near Christmas, Poinsett shipped a few specimens back to his South Carolina greenhouse. And the rest is history!
Then there is the tradition of Santa Claus. A shadowy figure, encrusted with myth, the man can be traced back to Myra, Turkey, around 300 A.D. It seems he was a bishop of the area churches, had a long white beard, and sported a bright red bishop’s robe. Not only did he attend the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where the Bible was canonized and the Nicean Creed was written, he also had a fondness for children and gift-giving.
When a nobleman went broke and was going to sell his three daughters into slavery, bishop Nicolas tossed a bag of gold in their window at night so they could pay their debts and remain a family.
Nicholas died in 342 A.D. His bones were moved to Bari, Italy, and enshrined in a church around 1087 A.D. And quickly he became the patron saint of commerce.
In Holland Saint Nicolas is pronounced Santa Claus. And his figure as patron saint of commerce adorned the mastheads of many Dutch ships that first came to America.
The popular picture that we have of Santa Claus today was first drawn during the American Civil War in 1863. Thomas Nast drew him for Harper’s Weekly. And finally, a sleigh and eight reindeer and a North Pole residence were added by Clement Moore in his poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And, of course, the rest is tradition!
Again, I must admit, I do love traditions! Greenery, family turkey feasts, wreaths and red balls, Santa Claus and poinsettias— The Bible in Proverbs even warns one to “remove not the ancient landmarks.” Our traditions help define us. They help us find our way. Yet as wonderful as they are, all of this still is not Christmas.
Peeling back the layers of Christmas we come next to organized religion, the church.
Honestly, the best help I’ve ever received in my life is from the church. I grew up in one. At church I first leaned basic Bible stories, the creeds and hymns. In church I learned that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior. I learned to pray in church, was introduced to the Holy Spirit there.
Many of the highlight experiences of my life have been associated with church. I was baptized in a church. I receive communion in church. My faith was first publicly affirmed in church. I met my wife in a church, was even married in the church.
But as great as church is, as great as all that organized religion can do and is doing, the institution is still not Christmas.
So, peeling deeper into the heart of Christmas, past the commercialism, the tradition, and institutionalism, we come to theology.
There is Paul Tillich who calls God “the very ground of our being.” Rudolph Bultman offers us his strategy of demythology. Leibnitz coins the word “theodicy,” reconciling the ways of God to man. And Schweitzer helps us search for the historical Jesus.
I love ideas, don’t you? Stretching for insight, loving God with all one’s mind, finding the comfort of knowing. And Christmas offers a rich study here— the virgin birth, sin, the holiness of God, grace, the incarnation.
A certain wealthy home here in the he city has a marvelous crystal nativity scene. So exquisite and fragile and expensive is it that no child is able to touch it. The one in my house, however, is wooden. Indeed, it is not fragile, nor is it expensive. It was made to be handled, dropped, moved around, and inspected by little fingers. And so is the idea of Christmas. God meant for us to grapple with its meaning, to think it through, doubt it, wonder at it, analyze it as far as we can.
Yet, beware! For it is easy to mistake doing theology for Christmas. So many have reduced Christ to an idea, a theology. And their faith is not in a living Savior, but in a set of logical ideas about God.
Let me explain how it is. Two men were lost in a cave. A book of matches was all they had between them. “Oh, great!” George told Jim, “at least now we’ll be able to watch each other starve!” But Jim remembered his Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, how a flickering candle was used to follow the draft to the cave’s entrance. So, he struck a match and followed the draft to an exit.
Actually Mark Twain didn’t save them. But an idea did. And there are those so immersed in theology that they think ideas are the Savior. Yet it is not an idea that God gave us at Christmas, but a real person. And it is not faith in our ideas about God, but faith in God that saves us. So, as wonderful as theology might be, this layer is still not Christmas.
Peeling back yet another layer, we come to Antioch and the gospel, the good news. And, oh my! But isn’t the world hungry for good news today! Deficit spending, nuclear warfare, massacres, starvation, earthquakes, the depletion of the ozone layer, AIDS, cancer— why it’s all enough to depress a hyena!
So, this time of year we like good news. And the snow, the music, egg nog, decorations, round of parties, gifts, bonuses, family and friends make us feel good. Add to this the popularly preached notions that God is love, Christ is our forgiveness, and we are not in this alone, and we’re quite content. Why, none of us really wanted to go to hell anyway!
Still, fine feelings do not a Christmas make. The truth is deeper still.
So, we travel back from New York and all its commercialism, through Europe with its traditions, past Rome and its institutions, through Athens with its theology and on to Antioch with its good news. And finally we come to Bethlehem, “the city of bread.”
And here John the beloved, writing in his gospel, explained the meaning of Christ’s birth. “The Word,” he wrote, “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
“Word” means “logos” in Greek. It is the godhead, the creative life force. “Flesh” means just that. “God became flesh and bones.” Not an idea, an investment, a building or a song or a painting. “God became a human.” And “He dwelt among us.” “Dwelt” is “tented” in the Greek. Christ was born in a barn. An animal feed trough was His bed. He didn’t “palace” among us. He roughed it. “God became a human being and roughed it with us in this difficult world.” And he brought something with Him. The text says He was “full of grace and truth.” “Grace” means the unearned love of God. “Truth” means one no longer has to guess at life, to live by trial and error. We can know for sure what is true about God, ourselves, morals and the like.
And now we’ve come to the heart of Christmas. The fact is Christmas is not something man could make. Rather, it is something only God could do— become a real person and bring love and mercy and truth to us. And what is our response? How do we celebrate His birthday among us? Do we commercialize it? Traditionalize it? Institutionalize it? Theologize it? Emotionalize it? The text simply says, “And we have beheld His glory.” Aye! That’s when we celebrate! We “behold His glory!”
A lady where I preached in another church tells a fine story about visiting Victoria Falls in Africa. “No one can look on it and ever be the same,” she says. And no one can look on the glory of God becoming human in Christ, “full of grace and truth” and ever be the same. I tell you, it gets into your emotions. It rearranges your thinking, your institutions, your traditions, and how you spend your money!
History is full of people who peeled back the layers of Christmas to discover Christ. Irving Stone’s biographical work Lust For Life is about Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutch painter. Van Gogh wanted to go to seminary and be a pastor, but was rejected. A missions board licensed him to preach to poor coal miners in Belgium. He moved into a shack among them, wore their clothing, and ate what they ate. Soon his face was black with soot just like theirs. Most of his salary he gave away to help the poor around him. Once he gave the shirt off his back to be used for bandages for a burn victim.
When his supervisors came to check up on his work, they were horrified by his appearance and poverty. “Didn’t you get the money we sent you?” “Yes,” he replied, “But I gave it to the poor. Isn’t that what Jesus would have done?”
Van Gogh was fired. And to grieve as well as to publicize the plight of the poor, Van Gogh began to draw and paint the miners. In a burst of creative genius all but unparalleled in history Vincent Van Gogh was to paint over 2,000 works in little more than a decade before his life ended. Only one of his paintings sold in his lifetime, yet just last month his “Irises” painting sold for a record $53,000,000.
And I could go on and on telling you of people who beheld Christ’s glory and carried the good news of Christ into nursing, music, universities, drama, politics, and such. Fact is, no theology, no institution, no tradition, and no commercial enterprise is safe from His influence. So, we Christians can stop decrying the commercialization of Christmas and start talking about the Christianization of commerce. For ours is not the moan, “Look what the world has come to.” But “Look Who has come to the world!”
So, when do we celebrate?
Take miles and miles of red ribbon, acres of wrapping paper, enough scotch tape to stretch to the moon, tons of sugar, nuts, fruit…add snow and wide-eyed children aquiver with expectancy, a visit by grandma and grandpa; toys that whizz, vroom, blink, bounce, wet, bark, cry and cuddle. Add to it enough egg nog to float a battleship, a round of office parties enough to dizzy the strongest; the sounds of carols, traffic, laughter, and the jingle of bells; waft in the aroma of a baking turkey, the scent of evergreen, cinnamon, and ginger; call school off, close the factory, lock the office, help the poor, give to the Salvation Army, remember your friends with cards; fire up the yule log, trim the tree, wrap the packages, gorge yourself feasting, and fetch your slippers…
But it would never amount to Christmas. For Christmas, you see, is not something man does, but something God does.
The Lord became human and lived among us full of grace and truth. And we? We have beheld His glory.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).
Peel through the layers and see!
Lord Jesus, lead me as you did the wise men of old. Let me find your birth and behold your glory. Amen