Christmas Dinner – December 25, 2017
Let us pray.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
their great, glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel.
You’ve reached the end of a long holiday season. You’ve fervently consumed more than your fair share of Christmas cookies; you’ve dutifully attended the requisite holiday parties; you’ve bought every single present and opened them around the tree. The wading through the crowds is over; the beautiful concerts have finished; the endless series of church services is done. Now, having prepared and brought along your favorite holiday dish, you are finally sitting down to a full and glorious Christmas dinner with your family and friends. All you have to do now is sit down, relax, enjoy good food, and delight in the company of those who matter most.
But then Aunt Mildred decides to ask you how your love life is doing, and you have a feeling that the fact that you live with your girlfriend will not go over well. Thankfully, you don’t actually need to respond because your grandmother is already pontificating about the decline of values and the end of Western civilization. Soon, Uncle Fred and Cousin Betsy are fighting over the latest tax bill, while Cousin Seth—who has always been a little bit out there, if you’re honest—explains that he has found the solution to everything thanks to a unique blend of yoga, Scientology, and ancient tribal religion. I probably don’t need to go on. You’ve already crawled under the table.
Politics, religion, sex: all those divisive and controversial topics you’re not supposed to talk about at dinner parties and yet all those topics that seem to so easily bubble up when any group of people comes together and discusses what’s important to them. It makes sense that some folks want to avoid serious conversation on Christmas. The intrusion of real life into Christmas can be jarring. Our culture teaches us that Christmas is a special time of year, a season over which peace and joy preside and during which nothing can ever go wrong. One could reasonably fear that arguments and debates and other forms of impassioned conversation might ruin the spirit of Christmas.
If there is one person who is an expert on the spirit of Christmas, it is English composer John Rutter. Though he is not always looked at as a serious composer, Rutter has written a multitude of much-loved and much-performed original carols and arranged many favorite traditional ones. Choirs all over the world sing his music. Our choirs sang two of his carols last night, and our quartet will sing another one of his carols this morning. This week, Rutter’s publisher, Oxford University Press, released a video in which he talked about why Christmas is so moving and significant for him. In the video Rutter spoke of his hope that Christmas music transports us to “that lovely ideal realm where for just a few days the voices of the politicians are stilled and we experience the world as it could be.”
It is not too difficult to realize what he is getting at. We all fall for the same kind of romantic escapism every year when we see the decorations and hear the music and eat the food. If only every day could be like Christmas, we think. We could ignore the slime and sludge of everyday life and only do what makes us feel happy, what makes us feel good.
The problem with such a notion of Christmas is that it is largely cultural in origin, not religious. The scriptural stories of Christmas are not tales about life becoming simpler, easier, and more perfect. Remember that, however lovely the songs of the angels, and however bold their proclamations, Jesus was conceived out of wedlock and had nowhere to sleep on the night of his birth. And the voices of the politicians were certainly not stilled during the Christmas described in the Gospels. Christmas would have never happened had Emperor Augustus, the dictatorial leader of a foreign occupying power, not decreed that all should go to their own towns to be registered, while King Herod, far from being stilled, was so alarmed by Jesus’ birth that he murdered scores of other children in his unsuccessful effort to kill Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus is born not to end the troubles and complexities of human life, but in the midst of them.
On Christmas, we celebrate that God has come to live among us. We rejoice not because we have traveled to a magical fairyland of love and peace for a few days’ reprieve from the mess of the world, but because God has come to inhabit our messy, complicated world with all its quandries and compromises. The era of God speaking through the prophets or through angels, the letter to the Hebrews explains, is over. God no longer desires to speak to human beings indirectly; God no longer needs any intermediaries. Instead, God has sent us a Son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
If God had wanted to do things differently, if God had wanted to stay separate from human beings, God could have done so. Malcolm Guite powerfully compares the Christian God to the old Greek and Roman gods in his poem “Descent”:
They sought to soar into the skies [he writes]
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But you came down…
They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
But you were born.
God chooses to embrace the pain and uncertainty of human existence. As Guite so masterfully relates, God doesn’t stay on the surface of Planet Earth, gazing with ambivalence on the people down below; God gets involved; God comes down.
“Around Christmas we often hear the song ‘From a Distance,” Sam Wells, the Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, recently wrote. “‘God is watching us from a distance.’ Sounds beautiful—but it misses the whole point of Christmas. God doesn’t watch from afar like some benevolent grandfather watching the children play at the bottom of the yard. God joins in. A God who watches us from a distance is a God we can keep at a distance. A God who takes human form is a God that comes up close and personal.”
Wells warns against “trying to be more spiritual than Jesus” at Christmas. Jesus was a material person who did material things in a material world. When we neglect the things that matter in other people’s material lives in order to maintain some sanitized spiritual fantasy of peace and love, we neglect the Jesus who believed it was so necessary to be real, to be substantial, to be human, to have a body. “Christmas,” Wells says, “is about being materialistic. About seeing each other’s flesh and blood — humanity, fear, anger, exasperation. And letting the light of hope, generosity and courage shine through, in acts of goodness, truth and beauty.”
Which brings me back to that Christmas dinner that is so exasperating you that you are right now crawling under the table. You may be irritated and disappointed that the annual family gathering you had hoped would stay calm and pleasant has devolved into a shouting match about politics, sex, and religion, and that is understandable. The television commercial idea of Christmas—with everyone smiling and laughing and hugging each other—is one with which we are all familiar, and this is not it. But Christmas, if by Christmas we mean the birth of Jesus, God taking on flesh and living among us, embraces controversy and difficulty and intense emotion. Christmas delves deep into the meat of the issues that we care about and that divide us from one another. Christmas does not ignore politics. Christmas does not ignore sex. Christmas certainly does not ignore religion. And neither should you.
Words play a central part in the Christian story. I don’t think it’s an accident that Christ is referred to in John’s Gospel as the “Word” or that Isaiah praises the messenger who brings good news, announces salvation and speaks to Zion or that the letter to the Hebrews declares that the Son “sustains all things by his most powerful word.” Words, Scripture tells us, can have an impact; they can be occasions for holiness—places where God shows up. But when we buttress our words with a surfeit of kindness and politeness, we keep God at a distance and may block God from getting through. This Christmas, let’s put aside pretense and talk about the things that actually matter. Let’s be nice, but let’s also be honest. We might learn. We might grow. We might see Christ being born.