Saturday, December 22, 2012

It’s Almost Time for “Merry Christmas!”

I confess to having slipped up a few times since December 2 and saying “Merry Christmas,” which I intended not to do.

That sounds weird, I know, given that so many of my Christian friends are making a point of saying “Merry Christmas” in an effort to “keep Christ in Christmas” and to combat what they see as the increasing secularization of Christmas symbolized by the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays.”

Don’t get me wrong; we have done our best to get ready for Christmas at our house, considering that our month started with our son’s wedding a thousand miles away in the mysterious and wonderful land of Wisconsin. The house is decorated; the stockings are hung; there are presents under the tree; the kitchen is filled with cookies and candy. Santa Claus is coming to town and, given that he has never missed our house, I’m sure he’ll show up again this year.

On Christmas Eve we will, like we do on every Christmas Eve, enjoy a nice supper of soup and sandwiches, spill out the contents of our stockings (no matter what else is in mine, it’s the Reese’s Christmas trees to which I look forward the most), watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and go to bed. On Christmas Day we will, like we do on every Christmas Day, open our presents, eat a turkey dinner that can’t be beat (my favorite dish is the Kentucky Corn Pudding—thanks, Patty Fasey, wherever you are), and hang around being family.

Santa Claus will be safely back at the North Pole, Blitzen and crew will be having a much needed rest, our Christmas tree will suddenly look empty and sad, we’ll all own a little more stuff, and Christmas will be over.

Only it won’t be. Not really. Not at all.

That’s because on the Christian calendar, December 24 is the last day of Advent, the last day of our four-week long preparation for Christmas, and December 25 is only the first day of Christmas. Our Christmas observance lasts for twelve days and does not end until January 5.

The embrace of this fact by more of us would be a very significant and helpful development for several reasons.

First, it would lessen the temptation to let ourselves get caught up in the so-called “War on Christmas.” The truth is that the weeks leading up to Christmas Day in America have been and will remain swallowed up by the cultural and commercial aspects of the season which frankly, when participated in with moderation, are rather enjoyable. As I have written previously, Christians would be well served to take the Season of Advent, those four weeks that focus on quietly and seriously anticipating the coming of Christ in all of the ways that he comes, more seriously.

Second, it would set aside significant time to celebrate Christmas when we have time to celebrate Christmas. For many of us, the days following Christmas Day involve a slowing of the pace and a reduction in activity. We have some time to reflect. Let’s use the Twelve Days of Christmas to spend some time reflecting on the coming of Christ as Christmas. This year, our church, like many churches, produced an Advent devotional guide that included a reading for each day of Advent. Our church’s booklet is also a Christmas devotional guide since we included readings for each of the twelve days of Christmas. This is not about leaving our Christmas decorations up until Epiphany (although that’s not a bad idea); it is about adopting some disciplines that will help us to spend some time and energy reflecting on the meaning of Christmas.

Third, it would encourage a renewed emphasis on the reality of incarnation. Incarnation means the embodiment, the taking on of flesh, by the spiritual or the divine. Christmas is about God putting on flesh in the baby Jesus. As Paul says of Christ, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). The Incarnation, in other words, gave the second person of the Trinity the opportunity and privilege of serving God by serving others and loving others by giving himself up, even to the point of giving his very life.

The emphasis on the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is one we need to reclaim because it reminds us that the essence of God’s love is in service and self-sacrifice. We who are the Church are the Body of Christ and so we are to continue the incarnational ministry of a presence in the world that is servant-oriented and sacrifice-based.

As of December 25 and through January 5, let’s be intentional about saying “Merry Christmas” to each other, but let’s do so knowing that it is code for “Remember that we are the Body of Christ, that we are to serve, and that we are to give ourselves away.”