I’ve been thinking about the Christmas spirit, what that feels like when we have it, how we long for it and search for the elusive formula that will bring it into our lives. We are like alchemists of old, who hoped to find a mythical substance, sometimes called “the philosopher’s stone” to transform base metals, like lead, into gold. We work with the ordinary things of our lives like music, material goods we can purchase for others, decorations for our homes, special dishes that we cook or cookies and cakes that we bake, along with a host of other shared and particular traditions in the hope that we will experience the gentle spirit of Christmas descend upon our hearts and minds.
I have a little Christmas tree in my office. It is adorned in the bubble lights that my family suggested might better serve that space than our Christmas tree at home. It has ornaments that I enjoy but which were received with less enthusiasm by the women in my life. I look at that tree and I think about the bubble lights on my Aunt Ibbie’s tree when I was a child. I thought those lights were the most fabulous thing I had ever seen in someone’s home. They transport me back to her living room. I can smell her home, the food cooking in her kitchen and the odd yet familiar combination of hardwood floors, worn rugs, heavily cushioned chairs and sofas that would envelop a small child when you plopped into them. I look at those lights and feel the cold breeze when the door opens and closes. I hear the voices of relatives now long passed, the warm greetings of grandparents with their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, whose memory I cherish in the deep recesses of my mind. For that moment, I feel the Christmas spirit, but it is like a candle that comes to life when I gaze on those lights and then flickers out when I look away.
Some years we miss Christmas because of our confusion about its source. Christmas is not found in what we receive, but in what we offer. It is experienced when we respond to its prodding to act. We are imbued with its spirit when we offer love to others: the warmth of friendship, a helping hand, the kind greeting to a stranger, acts of generosity or the quiet prayer for the well-being of another. Songs and customs will come and go, but the essence of Christmas will never change. It is found in the message of the angels:
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
We might ask what would have happened if those shepherds had not come with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger? What would have been missed, and how did their lives change because of what they saw that night? Here they found the ultimate act of generosity, not the first gift of Christmas, but the gift that is Christmas. The shepherds could have sat in their dark, cold, field, keeping a wary eye out for lurking danger and speaking as every generation speaks, “of what the world has come to.” That night they undertook a great act of faith, to go and see what had come into the world. The angels told them that the beauty of God had come into the ugliness of the world. A great light had pierced the darkness. In the birth of the Christ-child, love gained a foothold in a world’s despair and hopelessness. God was present, to teach and restore us, to bring us grace, redemption and joy. Because they saw what the angels described, the shepherds,
made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
Everyone who heard the shepherds’ words wondered at what they said. People thought it too good to be true. They thought it unrealistic, the stuff of fantasy or perhaps the disjointed rantings of the intoxicated. But not the shepherds. The shepherds had experienced the hope of Christmas, a hope that lasts not just for a night, or the following day, but the hope that can form your life and the way you live each week, month and year. It is the hope that having received the gift of the Christ, we will offer all that we have gained. We will allow Christmas to clothe us, as Paul said, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. It is the longing that Christmas will encourage us to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive. It is the joy that Christmas, above all, might enable us to put on the love of God, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and allows the peace of Christ to rule our hearts
This is why I thank God for Christmas. How I wish this moment would last all the year. Christmas calls something out in us, a desire to make the world a better place, and to be better people in the world. It asks us to think about how we can encourage one another, lighten the load of another, be a better friend, spouse, parent and child. Let there be decorations, music and laughter. May every home carry the aroma of food that is enjoyed in the present, but which reminds us of every good Christmas we have ever enjoyed in the past. May you see the shimmer of lights on a tree and the sparkle in the eye of a child.
I hope all these things remind you of the joy the shepherds experienced that first Christmas. More than anything, I hope you will hear the faint, but still resonate sound of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
We need Christmas. We need to stand in the warmth of its community with billions of people around the world who celebrate the incarnation of God. Together we celebrate the light that shines in even the darkest corners and most difficult moments of this earth. When hope seems to be lost, when goodness seems to be fading, we embrace Christmas, we keep Christmas, with its abiding love and unfailing hope. Like the shepherds, we celebrate Christmas not only for ourselves, but for every person who can hear its message and experience the love it offers.
And so, may we be like the shepherds as we go to our homes, to our gatherings and into our world in the weeks ahead. May we return glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.