During these weeks of Advent, when we are all busy preparing our hearts and our homes for Christmas, Rev. Dick Storment is teaching a 3 week Sunday morning class by this title – Christmas Unwrapped. In it, the class is exploring the various traditions and rituals associated with this major cultural holiday. I say “major cultural holiday” because that is, really, what Christmas is for us.
As Dick reminded us during our Tuesday morning staff meeting today, Christmas did not begin as a religious holiday. The early Christians were not as concerned with Jesus’ birth as they were with his resurrection. Until the fourth century Easter was the church’s big celebration, followed by the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 400 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Christians chose December 25th as his birthday, simply because there was an existing Roman festival honoring the sun god, Mithra on that date. Since the pagans seemed to be having such a great time, the church leaders decided to co-opt their celebrations and “re-brand” them with new religious significance. Hence, in Rome, feasting and acts of devotion were considered fair game for Christmas celebrations. While in northern Europe, observances around the winter solstice (December 21) – including the burning of a “Yule log”, the use of evergreen boughs to remind revelers of the regeneration of spring and the ongoing gift of life – became central to the Christian church’s Christmas story.
So what does this “unwrapping” of Christmas mean for us? Are we to abandon our efforts to find religious significance in the season and simply give in to the tendency to “eat, drink, and be merry” through the holidays? I think not.
Because I think what has happened to the evolution of Christmas is the same thing that can happen in any ordinary day. God – and the community of faith – have a way of taking what is secular and even profane and using it to create a depth of meaning which draws us closer to the Divine source of all life and love. In the same way God can take what is painful, difficult and downright devastating – our most wounding moments of loss, grief, and anguish – and redeem them in ways that draw us into God’s love. Sometimes the only way to find the Light of Christ is to brave the darkness of the moment. Sometimes the only way to know the love of God is to sit in the loneliness. Sometimes the only way to receive the power of faith is to turn directly into the face of our fears.
So whether your December is filled with Christmas carols or Solstice chants, whether you find joy in feasting or in fasting, whether your confidence is strengthened by choirs of angels or a single candle in the darkness… may you unwrap the gift of God’s love this season. For it is the gift of God’s love which is at the heart of Christmas for us all.
PS… You can still join Rev. Dick to learn more about the season – 9:00 am on Sundays, in Room 110.