Banning Christmas

If you were here this past Sunday you would have heard the Herald Angel say Emmanuel...God with us. On this night, we celebrate the fact that God has come to live among us…that the glorious light of the eternal has chosen to walk upon the earth beside us as man. But you would also have heard the three angels talking amongst themselves asking a very important question…why? Why would Jesus degrade himself like that? What could he possibly accomplish by being human? One angel even commented that she would have given up on those humans after the flood.

Well, we might ask the same questions. Since the world still reels daily from human acts of aggression and misunderstanding. How do we substantiate the claim that God is with us? Lately, Christians have watched with dismay as the symbols of our faith are one-by-one removed from public view and our ability to declare this faith is hampered by another person's legal right NOT to hear it. Even our annual celebration that honors his birth and joyfully heralds our anticipation that Christ will come again in majesty is complicated with so many secular practices that most children and adults haven't got a clue that Christmas is about Jesus and his long awaited second coming. It has turned into a marathon of shopping, baking, and a series of parties that begin the day after Thanksgiving and end for many on December 25th. Then off they go for a week of relaxation, fun in the sun, or skiing down the snow covered slopes of Colorado. Totally missing the fact that December 25th marks the beginning of 12 days of royal celebration culminating with January 6 when the Magi come and declare that the nations of the world recognize that Jesus is the ultimate ruler of this earth. WOW. But fear not, we are not the first generation of Christians to see that Christ somehow gets lost in the shuffle of wrapping paper and tinsel.

The celebration of Christmas has always been complex. So much so that in days of old the church actually attempted to have Christmas banned. It was in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell. His Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas. In England there would be no more lavish and raucous celebration, no more commercial exploitation, there would be no more Christmas, period. Viewed by the Puritans as superfluous, not to mention threatening, to core Christian beliefs, all activities to do with Christmas, both domestic and religious, including attending church, were forbidden.

But the people were outraged. There was rioting in the streets. Secret Christmas celebrations broke out all over England. Parliament decreed penalties of imprisonment for anyone caught celebrating the holiday. Town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding people that "Christmas and all other superstitious festivals" should not be observed, businesses should remain open. There were to be no displays of Christmas decorations.

The Puritans although surprised by the strength of popular resistance to their anti-Christmas policies would not alter them or compromise their principles. They simply went down to defeat in the next elections. The Puritans were thrown out of power - and Christmas was back. Except in cold New England, the zeal of the Puritans persisted long after it had faded away in England. The holiday that we know as Christmas remained outlawed in Massachusetts until the second half of the nineteenth century. Anyone caught celebrating would pay a fine of five shillings to the county.

Well obviously, the Puritan fervor did not take hold here. I look out among this congregation and it is apparent that we come with a sense that there is something more to Christmas than all the wrapped presents and all the festivities. We have come this night not to argue about whether our holiday customs are correct or appropriate. Our society is as it is and our lives are intimately interwoven. We have come instead hoping that we will be filled with the Spirit that came into the world so long ago…a spirit that enables us to move among all the customs of the world and find what is holy and good and anchor our witness there. There is nothing that makes any one of us any more spiritual or any more loved by God than another sitting in this sanctuary, any cathedral, or humble prayer space in the world. We are here because God has called us here. Called us out of the frenzied pace of this season to spend time with Jesus and fill us with peace.

When you walk out this door tonight, there will be feasts, breakfasts and dinners waiting for you in someone's home. But there is not a feast more important than the table that you have set before you where Jesus sits as host. You will be greeted merrily in the coming days by friend and stranger alike but none more graciously than he who says welcome to this place.

The questions asked by our pageant angels can be answered only with the word "Love." Imagine the greatest love story you have ever known. Envision if you will the things that make the one you love so special. Or what you believe it would be like if you truly could love someone. This is what our God is like. Willing to know us so intimately that becoming like us, experiencing our lives with us would be the one way we could know that a relationship with the eternal can exist.

Perhaps we regret that we have not been more vocal as our nation began to devalue its religious heritage and separate the spiritual from the mundane. But if we bemoan our lack of involvement then we have placed our faith inappropriately. It is not we who are responsible for bringing about the kingdom. God's kingdom came in God's own time and it began in a stable in Bethlehem. It was announced with the greatest of royal fanfare to the lowliest of society. Shepherds who slept more nights with the animals and under the stars were the first to see the heavenly lights and hear the hosts of angels. How wonderful that God found it fitting to come to those of meager esteem. This night is for society's outcasts for this is when the heavens declared that God loves. Jesus, born in a stable felt the courseness of homespun, found warmth in the cattle's breath and was cushioned by a bed of straw. Allow this humble love to be born in you this night.

Author, educator, and pastor Howard Thurman put it this way. "The spirit of Christmas - what is it? It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother's womb, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stirred with the newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil."

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan