Dear Working Preacher,
Do you remember that poster from an ad campaign of a few years ago to “reclaim” Christmas?
Its space was equally divided between two pictures: on the left, a portrait of the most jolly of Santa Clauses, straight out of the pages of Norman Rockwell; while on the right, one of the Old Masters’ renditions of the Christ child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. The headline over the two pictures read, “Whose birthday is it, anyway?”
Though not prone to scolding people about “the reason for the season,” I am reminded of this poster regularly during these months of the year, when popular culture, economic opportunity, and religious conviction all clash so regularly. “Whose birthday is it, anyway?” I wonder to myself as I walk past the stores on Grand Avenue, illuminated by countless thousands of lights. “Whose birthday is it, anyway?” I muse while driving by yards bespeckled with plastic nativity scenes where Mary and Joseph are juxtaposed with Santa’s flying reindeer and magi and snowmen keep company. “Whose birthday is it, anyway?” I mutter as I listen to yet another recording star’s sickly-sweet rendition of the “holiday classics.” “Whose birthday is it, anyway,” I grumble as I swerve through the Mall of America parking lot seeking the elusive space in which to throw my car so I can continue my pursuit of just the right gift at an affordable price.
“Who’s birthday is it?” The answer is supposed to be obvious – it’s Jesus’ birthday, of course. At least that’s what I thought until I read the Prologue to John’s Gospel in preparation for the Christmas edition of Sermon Brainwave. John writes: “He [Jesus, the Word] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13).
Did you hear that? “To all who receive him, he gave power to become children of God.” “Whose birthday is it?” As it turns out, St. John seems to think…that it’s our birthday. Oddly enough, John knows nothing of a child, doesn’t say anything about a virgin mother named Mary or a husband called Joseph, and provides us no details about stables, mangers, shepherds or magi. By all accounts, in fact, John’s is the least colorful, least dramatic of the accounts of Christ’s birth and has therefore inspired few paintings and absolutely no lawn decorations to date.
But what John does know, he tells, in fact he sings, and through his song he bears witness to the one who comes so that we might be children of God — children, that is, who are more than the sum total of the past events of their lives; children who are not forever shackled to the pain and paucity of mortal life; children who cannot ultimately be dominated by the whim and will of others; children, that is, who are born of God, to be as God, in and through the Word of God, Jesus the Christ.
For in Holy Baptism, we – all of us! – were born again; born not of blood, but of water; born not of the will of the flesh, but of the spirit; born not of the will of man, but of God. In Holy Baptism we were granted that life which knows no ending; we were promised God’s eternal commitment; and we were created anew in the very likeness of God. And so at the heart of all the hymns and carols, at the center of all the celebration and gifts, and behind all the lights and wreaths, stands this one promise – that because of Christ and his incarnation, God regards us forever as God’s own beloved child.
And it’s not only John that gives witness to this glorious promise, but Luke, as well, who through his depiction of the nativity and the song of the angels makes plain the importance of this night. As Martin Luther once observed in a Christmas sermon, Luke’s “…Gospel teaches that Christ was born, and that he did and suffered everything on our behalf, as is here declared by the angel: ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people; for there is born to you this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ In these words, Luther writes, you see clearly that Christ is born for us. For the angel does not simply say, “Christ is born,” but “to you he is born,” neither does he say, “I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy…. We see here,” Luther continues, “how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ.”
This, then, is the Christmas promise: that for one reason did Christ surrender his heavenly glory to be born as one of us, that for one reason did Christ teach and preach and suffer and die on the cross, that for one reason was Christ raised again on the third day — all for just one reason: that we might be reborn in Holy Baptism and so be made and declared a child of God…forever.
In the end, I think, the task at hand isn’t to reclaim Christmas by urging our folks to have less of Santa Claus, sentimental songs, lights, and gift-giving. Rather, I think instead that our task – really, our calling – is to offer our people something more: the chance to taste afresh and experience anew God’s pledge to regard us as God’s own beloved children, God’s vow to go with us into the new year and all that it might bring, God’s word to be committed to us through all of our living and struggling and yearning and loving and dying, God’s promise, finally, to be both with us and for us now…and forever.
This is the heart and promise of Christmas. Thank you for your help in telling it!