Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Reclaiming "Christmas"

Message preached December 23, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 1:39-56

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

             Does the title I’ve given this message sound a bit arrogant? To “re-claim” something implies that it once belonged to us, but has slipped out of our fingers. We want, now, to possess it again, placing our claim to it on the table. Christmas belongs to us! We need to put “Christ” back in Christ-mas, we say.

             The feeling is understandable. In an earlier age, there was no problem with unabashedly centering Christmas programs in our public schools upon the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. Not so now. Blame the change on BaltimChinese painting of the nativityore’s own Madelyn Murray O’Hare, if you will. She, and others, worked to get God out of the public schools.

             However, the story is much more complicated than an angry atheist. It’s a tale of a changing society. When my children went to middle school, it was obvious that Cockeysville is a diverse community. A large percentage of the students there are of Asian descent. Some of them are Christian. Many are not. Likewise, through school I made some Jewish friendships. Other religions are part of the mix. Our country, as a whole, is becoming more diverse.

             Our nation, yes, was founded upon biblical principles, among many other influences. But we have also been an immigrant land, a place which offered freedom of religion. We still are, only today the immigrants are not coming from Europe, as they did in the past. Modern immigrants are bringing their own faiths with them, and that’s something we just have to get used to as Christians. Does our faith depend upon us being in the majority? I hope not.

             The clash in cultures is keenly felt at this time of year, for many religious celebrations are focused upon this month: Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanza - being some we’re a bit familiar with, if only by name. Sometimes the lines between them seem to blur. It’s only natural for us to feel like Christmas is being taken away from us, that we need to fight to reclaim it.

             However, friends, we first need to be honest about this holy day. It wasn’t ours to start with. That’s right. As some Christians are quick to point out, Christmas has its origins in pagan rituals, all of which revolved around the winter solstice, which happened last Friday. In the northern hemisphere of this globe, December 21st is the longest night of the year. From here on the daylight hours increase. In ancient days, while this was, calendar-wise, a time for hope (looking ahead to warmer, more fertile days), it was also a period of fear for, indeed, the people of all races walked in a great darkness - literally.

             Practices arose in every land to push back the darkness, to quell the fear of the night, to provide hope. Some of those practices are still a part of this season. For instance, why do you think people put lights on their houses at this time of year? Is it just to make them pretty? No. The practice actually goes way back to bonfires and yule logs, a means of pushing back the dark nights. The same is true of Christmas trees, and the holly and the ivy. They are symbols of hope amid the bleakness of winter because they are ever-green. They didn’t start out as Christian symbols.

             Now, some Christians say, as did the puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony, that because Christmas has such pagan roots, we ought to have nothing to do with it. Our own Brethren forebearers, themselves, were critical of excessive celebration, but they adapted the day in a creative way. You see, they were immigrants, also, forced to flee Europe in search of religious liberty. The bulk of their migration took place in the early 1720's. On Christmas Day in 1723, they gathered in Germantown, outside Philadelphia. Journeying through the snow down to the Wissahickon creek, they broke through the ice and held the first Brethren baptism in America. Then they went to the warmth of someone’s home and celebrated their first Love Feast in the new world. Talk about a Christmas to remember! How creative!

             Instead of criticizing the pagan roots of this holiday, or of fighting over who it belongs to, like some custody battle in court which only seems to damage everybody equally, I’d much rather deal with Christmas in the same creative way as our forebearers in the faith - and I’m not just talking “Brethren.”  You see, the early Christians lived in societies as pluralistic as our own. You know what? They thrived! They weren’t out to recapture anything. They simply sought to share the good news of Jesus Christ and the coming Kingdom of God.

             Along the way, they discovered common ground with people of other faiths, or even those of no faith, whatsoever. In an interesting chapter in the story as we’ve received it, the apostle Paul creatively adapted a statue in the city of Athens. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, it says that “(Paul) was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols(17:16). Sound familiar? Any of you have a similar experience while Christmas shopping this year - feeling like you were surrounded by idols?

             Well, there in Athens Paul found one object of worship, “an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown God.’ What therefore you worship as unknown,” he went on to say to the people of that city, “this I proclaim to you.” (17:23) Paul adapted something pagan and used it to share the good news of Jesus. (See the whole story in Acts 17:16-34).

             In a way, that’s the story of Christmas, a celebration which has many origins in various other religions. Christians creatively adapted these celebrations to make them vessels for proclaiming the good news of the incarnation - how God sent his Son into this world, becoming one of us, experiencing life as we live it, in all its fragility. Christ was God’s love in human form. Into our darkness came this light. And this light shined and continues to shine brighter than any other light, drawing the world to the One who created us. 

             No, when I speak of “reclaiming Christmas,” I am not talking as a soldier out to win back some strategic location which once belonged to us but now is in enemy hands. Neither am I arguing like a spouse demanding my rightful share of common property and custody of the children. You know, we Christians can sometimes come off looking just like these images - to those who do not know Christ - when we try to “win back” what we think we possess.

             Doesn’t our faith tell us, however, that it is all a gift, something that does not belong to us, exclusively? Our very life belongs to the One who created us, the very One who gave his Son to the world as a gift, to set us free from the power of sin and death. When we give gifts to one another, as followers of the greatest gift ever, Jesus Christ, we are living out of that gift. That’s especially true when we give freely from the heart, and not because we expect something in return, or feel like it’s expected of us. God first gave to us. How can we help but pass that gift along?

             I’ve often wondered why Mary, the mother of Jesus, went to visit her cousin Elizabeth after being visited herself by the angel Gabriel. I’m sure there were very practical reasons for it, one being the discomfort of pregnancy without virtue of marriage. It wasn’t all that many years ago that this was standard procedure for a woman in similar circumstances here. Go visit distant relatives until the child is born. Such is not the practice anymore.

"Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth" by Marx Reichlich (1460-1520)

             As I read the gospel, however, I don’t think that’s why Mary went. She also didn’t go because she was told by the angel to go. Gabriel mentioned that Elizabeth was herself pregnant, but he didn’t suggest a meeting between the two women. No, that must have been Mary’s idea. Why? Maybe it was because she needed to tell somebody, and Elizabeth might have been the only person she felt could understand, since something had happened to this cousin also. Would Elizabeth be the only person able to see Mary’s pregnancy as good news and not bad news?

             When they met, Mary couldn’t help but burst into song. Now, I don’t imagine it was opera, though the words come across a bit formal to us reading it 2000 years later. At the time, however, it probably was less poetry on a page and more something shared from the heart - just passing the gift along.

             Maybe this gives us some clues for reclaiming “Christmas.”  When it comes right down to it, no matter how hard we try we’re not going to be able to rescue this holiday from what it has become. Christ cannot be forced back into Christmas (as if that’s where we want him to stay!). No, Jesus can only be welcomed in - into our homes, our lives, our celebrations, our sorrows, our behavior, our hopes, our fears, our disappointments, our successes...

             And you know what, that’s always been the case. Christians have been pretty creative down through the years at finding doorways for him to enter in most every culture. That’s probably because they / we just want to share from the heart (as Mary did with Elizabeth) something good, to “proclaim with wonder” God’s greatness, to “magnify the Lord,” to somehow put into words what God is doing in us - knowing that words are never enough.

             This week, I encourage you to reclaim Christmas - not by force, but by welcoming Christ into wherever you are. If you’re able to gather with family, welcome him in, and share what needs to be shared - even if “family” is a tense place, or if “family” is a phone call or a friend. Let him live in your home. If you must be away from home at this time, as many of us need to be - working or on the road, welcome him in wherever you are. Share from the heart what needs to be shared. Let him live there. In so doing we will reclaim Christmas, maybe for the first time.

©2012 (revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page