"Merry Christmas" - A Reflection for The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord - Christmas Eve
Merry Christmas! We all say it. But do we really know what it means? Or is it just a 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? But “Christmas” … that’s where the meaning gets tricky. 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 holiday.
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 be disciples… 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 due respects to Cindy Lou Who and all the fine folks down in Who-Ville… the Grinch may have done them a favor swiping all that Christmas loot. Only, maybe, he 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, to drink too much? How has God’s initial act of our redemption come to be celebrated by Cyber-Monday and Black Friday?
I blame it on the pagans… both the contemporary ones and the ancient ones. Like so many of our traditions, the timing of the yule season was originally a pagan festival borrowed by the early Christians. So, you might say that it’s only going back to its origins.
At the risk of joining up with the Grinch and Scrooge and all the other 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? If the pagans have reemerged to take back their own, who cares? 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 human… while remaining God. Let that sink in for a moment.
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, not encyclopedic regulation and 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 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” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” … 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… right here, right now, in you, in me.
And that is the “Merry Christmas”. I wish you… a blessed and joyful Christmas wrapped in the saving love of the new-born Christ.