By Steven A. Peay
Merry fifth day of Christmas!
Yes, today is the fifth day of Christmas, “five golden rings” and all that. To a goodly number of folks outside these walls, Christmas ended at midnight on the 25th. All of the Christmas music that had been playing for what seemed like forever just went away. And another season of what I like to call “HallowThankMas” has come and gone. Let the orgy of returns and sales begin!
So, what happened? How did we end up with this cultural “mashup” that we Americans now know as Christmas?
Well, if you want to go to the root of things, it goes back to the founding of our nation and that the principal churches of that time — Congregational, Presbyterian, later Methodists and Baptists — didn’t “keep Christmas.” It was a Puritan rejection of one more scrap of what they called “papistical fripperies” that Anglicans (and Lutherans) had kept, much to their annoyance. “Puritans,” they wanted a pure Church. One problem: it’s made up of people. You get the point.
So, in reality, Christmas was not a part of things until the mid-19th century. We owe as much to Victoria and Albert, especially Albert — who was a German Christmas-lover if there ever was one — and Charles Dickens as we do to anything for Christmas as we understand it. And then, well, add in Nast’s cartoons of Santa Claus, and Montgomery Ward, and Coca Cola and we get what we get. What happened? There was a change in culture, religious and otherwise.
The observance of Christmas with its 12 days — four more than a traditional octave of a major feast, or eight days — which led us to Epiphany, the Feast of God’s self-disclosure (January 6, and actually observed earlier than Christmas) was reduced to what we see now. So, today we’re showing the countercultural nature of Christianity and keeping Christmas!
What’s the other reason for the shift? Along the way folks got very much focused on the nativity of our Lord. The whole “this is Jesus’ birthday” thing. What we are celebrating isn’t just a birth — though it’s important, to be sure — but we’re celebrating the Incarnation. We’re talking about God taking flesh. We’re not just talking about “baby Jesus,” we’re talking about the incarnate Word, the Word through whom all creation came into being and is sustained in being.
This is precisely what Paul was telling the folks there in Galatia when he wrote: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” In Jesus Christ you and I have been joined to God. We are through adoption what Jesus is by his very nature.
We also must understand that Jesus Christ was a person like you and me, but he was also all of humanity. He didn’t take on a human nature, he took on human nature. And he took that human nature and joined us to God. One of the great teachers of the early Church, Athanasius, said, “The Word was made flesh in order that we might be made gods. … Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” Athanasius also observed: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Which is why the Council of Chalcedon said, “only as man could he know us, only as God could he save us.”
The implications of this are enormous. We don’t just celebrate a historical fact, something that happened so many hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. We’re talking about a present reality, and an ongoing reality. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, is being born into the world with every baptized Christian. His body continues to reach into the world and to do his work — it’s the Church.
This celebration, this event, this story is a reminder that God continues to reach, to touch, humanity. We may call God by many names, but today, on this fifth day of Christmas, we recall that God has embraced us in an intimate way: God has become one with us; God has become one of us. And by doing this God has given us opportunity to become one with God. Meditating on that wonder no doubt caused Leo the Great to cry out to his people in fourth-century Rome, “Christian, be conscious of your dignity and do not be quick to back into your former way of living!”
Be conscious of your dignity because you, we, all of us, bear the message of Christmas, the hope it implies, and the very image and likeness of God on our persons. God’s good will is expressed in us and we become its instruments in the world. You see, dear ones, reconciliation, peace, and good will begin inside us and then find their way into our words and our actions.
Martin Luther understood this when he preached to his people in Wittenberg. As usual, brilliant scholar that he was, he was still quite able to bring it right down to basics. He told them: “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!”
“Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”
Amen. Preach it, brother Martin! Peace on earth, good will to all people begins when we realize that the Christ is ever here, born in our hearts, born in even those who know him not, but who are yet loved by him. It begins when Christ is born in us.
So, beloved, merry Christmas! Be relentless, be persistent, be loving in keeping the feast of our Lord’s incarnation. Christ is born in us, and continues to be born in us. Now, we have to go and live like we not only believe it, but that it makes a difference — because it does. Merry Christmas. Christ is born in you!