I have to say, just between you and me, that I sometimes have a problem with the people that
get all up in arms about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. You know the ones I’m talking about: the folks who get all worked up over “Xmas”, despite the fact that it’s been
used for centuries because the Greek letter chi is the initial for Christ, and looks like an X. Or the
folks who think they’re being radical and countercultural with campaigns that say, “Keep Christ in
Christmas.” The problem I have with these things isn’t that they go to far, but that they don’t go
Keeping Christ is Christmas is a fine idea as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t say enough.
What about Christ are we keeping in Christmas? The fact of his birth? That’s not enough. I want
to keep his compassion and sacrifice in Christmas. I want all of us to keep in Christmas the
humility of his birth, and the willingness of everyone around him: his parents, shepherds, angels,
wise men and all– to seek God’s will in the extraordinary circumstances of his Incarnation.
That is the central message of Christmas, after all. It’s all about the incarnation: God choosing
to become human like us, re-directing the course of human history by his birth, his teaching, and
eventually by his death and resurrection. Peace on Earth is the hoped-for and still not-quite realized by-product of his coming. “Joy to the world” is the consequence, several steps down the line, of “away in a manger.” Christ became human, to mend the rift between God and humanity caused by sin.
Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. And every time that starts to sound overly theological, and disconnected from people’s real lives, I spend a few moments looking behind the
Holy Family in the nativity scene, and focus on the shepherds. They, together with the angels, are
the real stars of tonight’s Gospel reading, and they are the ones who make the Incarnation real and important, and connected to people’s real lives and real struggles.
Shepherds work 24 hours a day, guarding the sheep– sheep that probably belong to someone else. At night they keep watch for predators. A shepherd’s life is simple, dirty, smelly, and hard. Although their work provided the lambs for sacrifice in the temple, it’s unlikely they’d be allowed in for worship.
How strange is it, then, that when it was time to announce the Incarnation, to proclaim to the
world that the cosmic balance between good and evil has just shifted forever, and that God himself has become human– how strange is it that God sent his angels not to the Temple, not to the priests, and not to the king, but to the Shepherds. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace, has been born and is waiting for you, not in a palace or a temple, but in a barn, and is sleeping in the animal’s food trough. It’s no wonder the shepherds were afraid. They probably thought they’d lost their minds.
But this is how Christ came to us. This is how our salvation was accomplished. And this is
why Christmas is, generally speaking, the feast day we love the most. Because it’s a foretaste of
God’s Kingdom. It’s a peek in the door of heaven, when there will be peace, and when injustice is
overturned, and mercy becomes the new law of the land. Christmas is when we’re the most
generous, the most gracious, the most reconciling. It’s when all the world is decorated with lights
that banish darkness, and we endulge in the richest bad-for-us foods. It’s all a peek into the door
of heaven, when shepherds are the first to know the good news, because in his Kingdom, they will
inherit the earth.
Limited, sinful creatures that we are, it’s too hard for us to keep Christmas all year. Still, this
is the time to celebrate and strive for the ideals that are the best of who God calls us to be. By
tomorrow, or maybe next week, we’ll be back to tending the flocks and mucking out the barns.
But we’ll return to that everyday life with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has become one of us,
we are his sisters and brothers, and we’ve had a brief glimpse of his Kingdom.