If someone were to try to capture “the essence of Christmas,” one really could not improve on the message which Linus delivered to Charlie Brown over 50 years ago. When Charlie Brown is discouraged because everything in his Christmas season has become a train wreck, Linus responds by quoting from the Gospel of Luke:
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2: 9-11, NRSV)
There is much in those few verses that still speaks to us today. We are a people who have an incredibly high standard of living compared to previous ages and to much of the rest of the world, yet we are very afraid of so many things – the prospect of war, the cost of healthcare and virtually everything else, the fear of those beyond our borders and many of those within our borders. How can we, in our fear-ridden age, hear the Good News which the angels proclaimed to those shepherds?
We must remember the context of the story. The time is two millennia ago, when darkness after the setting of the sun was total unless someone lit a fire. The scene is in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, where foreign troops are billeted everywhere and life in Judea is precarious and cheap. The audience is comprised of shepherds – persons without social standing, probably eking out a limited existence as they keep the night watch over their herds. It is into that darkness and brutal context that God chooses to announce to this unlikely band a message not only of hope, but of fulfillment.
For the Good News proclaimed to all people was the fulfillment of promises made generations before to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the whole of Israel in their times of oppression. And what was proclaimed in the birth of Jesus is nothing less than the inauguration of a new time when God comes fully into God’s reign characterized by the promise of peace and goodwill.
The problem we face every Christmas is that, when we look around at the darkness of our world, we find it hard to believe that God is truly in charge. Put another way, does it really seem like Jesus, his life, death, and even resurrection, have really made a difference? What the angels proclaimed so long ago was not a promise, but the fulfillment of a promise. And if that is true, then somehow we Christians have missed the boat.
For if we truly believe that Jesus is the long-expected deliverer who makes God personal and present, who has inaugurated by his redeeming presence a new age of the Kingdom of God, then we should be living a life which proclaims, by word and deed, our experience of God’s reign over and through us. In other words, Christians should take the message of the angels as genuine, and our lives should be a reflection of the presence of God as we know God through Jesus Christ. Nothing less will actually serve to celebrate Christmas as the gospel proclaims it.
Beyond all the lights and tinsel, beyond the music of exultation and joy, certainly beyond any gifts we might exchange in celebration, the giving of ourselves to the world as a people transformed by the knowledge of the living God and God’s presence in our hearts would be the most acceptable way to celebrate Christmas. Indeed, then Christmas itself would be only a yearly marking of our acceptance of the grace which God has bestowed upon the world, and the welcoming of the living Christ as the center of our being. We would then live as if we truly believed that we are in the new age of God’s reign – and we would do that to the glory of God’s Name. And in that spirit, we would make this our song:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2: 14, NRSV)
Have a blessed Christmas season, and made the spirit of the God-given Christ dwell within each of us every day of the year!