December 24, 2012

“What Christmas Means to Me”

Luke 2:1-20
John 1:1-14

Yesterday afternoon I caught a little bit of the CBC Radio One program, “Cross country checkup,” as I was driving in my car. And the question of the day, that Reg Sherren was asking Canadians across the country to respond to, was: “What does Christmas mean to you in a multicultural Canada?”

When I turned it on, there was a woman talking about inviting her Jewish and Muslim friends to her annual Christmas dinners, as well as accepting invitations to their special holiday events. It sounded like a good and enriching experience to share hospitality and friendship across cultural and religious lines.

Someone else talked about Christmas having been transformed from a religious observance to a secular and commercial celebration. I thought at first that she was going to complain about that change. But instead she said that this was a good thing, because now everyone (whatever their religion or culture) can participate in Christmas together – exchanging gifts, sharing special meals, having parties, bringing their kids to the mall to sit on Santa’s knee.

Later, when I got home, I went online and read some of the email responses to the Cross country checkup question of the day. And there I found some wonderful reflections on Christmas traditions. Many people wrote about their particular family practices, and the cultural and religious practices they continue to honour from homelands around the world.

Some shared about basically secular celebrations. A few even noted that what they do is mark the Winter Solstice with ancient pagan practices like bringing greenery into their homes as a reminder that Spring will eventually come.

But quite a few also wrote about the importance of religious practices at this time of year… going to midnight mass, going to church on Christmas morning to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One writer, from a Dutch background, talked about the fact that her family celebrates the legend of Sinterklaas and exchanges gifts on the evening of Dec. 5th so that when Dec. 24th arrives, Christmas is reserved for religious observances only – a time set apart for remembering and giving thanks for the birth of Jesus the Lord.

Although there was a great deal of variety in the responses to the Cross country checkup question, Sherren reported that a recent Abacas survey indicates that Christmas traditions aren’t really changing that much over the years, even as immigration numbers increase. The survey polled over 15 hundred Canadians, and over 13 hundred said they planned to observe Christmas. 41% of those said they celebrate it as a religious holiday, 50% said they celebrate it as a secular holiday, and 9% were unsure. So, for some (41%) of those Canadians who are celebrating Christmas this year, this is a spiritual season culminating in a holy day – the origin of the word holiday.

The fact that you are here tonight probably means that either you and/or your family have decided that celebrating the birth of Jesus is at least a part of what it means for you to celebrate Christmas. You are part of the 41%, or perhaps the 9% who are unsure. But you are here to sing Christmas carols (not just Jingle Bells and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer) but to sing the traditional Christian carols about the birth of Jesus, and to light candles, and to hear once again the biblical story about the birth of a child in Bethlehem who would become our Saviour and our Lord.

I didn’t call in or send an email to tell Reg Sherren and other Canadians about what Christmas means to me, although I did hear a Ukrainian Catholic priest sharing about the various services that are a part of his Christian Tradition. But since I have the pulpit tonight, I thought I would just share briefly about what Christmas means to me in multi-cultural Canada.

Perhaps there was a brief time in Canadian history in which Christianity was the primary, established religion, and Christmas was Christmas, and everyone knew what everyone else was talking about when they said “Christmas.” But through most of Christian history, and in most parts of the world, Christianity has existed side by side with a variety of other religions and secular cultural practices.

In a Christmas reflection in “Feasting on the Word,” Nancy Taylor explains that “When opposing cultures come together and live together, they often bring into being new ways of seeing the world.

When Oeastre and Jesus came together in the newly missionized areas of England and northwest Europe, Jesus brought in communion and Oeastre brought in her fertility symbols of rabbits and baby chickens. When Christians lived with the Romans for a while, the desired holiday of his birth became associated with the Latin Saturnalia.

And then there’s Christmas! Into this odd syncretism of elves and apostles, reindeers and shepherds, snowmen and magi, Jesus and Santa spin in a common blender and generally speaking, the non-Christian elements come to the froth at the top of the spin.”

I admit that I find the syncretism – the mixing of religious and cultural practices – difficult. When people talk about elves and flying reindeer, and describe those as part of the Christian story, I am troubled. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those things – and they certainly are fun for children! – but they are not what Christmas means to me.

My Christmases over the years have included gatherings with family, and sometimes not; decorating Christmas trees, hanging up stockings and setting out cookies and milk for Santa, and sometimes not; exchanging gifts, sending cards, sharing a big special meal with turkey and cranberry sauce and Christmas pudding, and sometimes not.

Some of that stuff is pretty good. I can get into the trees and lights and special gatherings and meals with friends and family. And it’s quite wonderful that there is a time of year when people are inspired to give like they never give at other times… coins dropped in the Salvation Army kettles, cheques written to favourite charities, extra donations for Food Banks and other missions, including churches.

But most of the trappings of Christmas I could live without. Because whether my neighbours in multicultural Canada are Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Hindu or Mormon or secular or Christian, Christmas means the same thing to me that it always has meant and it always will mean.

Gathering in Christian community to sing, and pray, and celebrate the birth of Jesus is the only part of Christmas that I can’t live without. It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

He was born like any other child… but with the church throughout time and space, I believe that he was God coming to live among us – God’s Word, God’s message of love becoming flesh in our world.

In the words of the Nicene Creed, he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This very one has become flesh and lived among us – literally “tabernacled” or “tented” among us, as the glory of God “tabernacled” with the people of Israel.

Because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to be a part of our human family, to live among us and experience all the joys and sorrows that we experience in life, and to reveal to us in his teaching, his preaching, his welcoming, his healing, and his sacrifice that God is love and we are the object of that love. We are God’s beloved children.

No matter what holiday traditions you are going to take part in tonight and tomorrow… whether you’ll be gathering with a large group of family or friends, whether you’ll be exchanging gifts, sharing special meals, spending a quiet day at home, or maybe even going to work…My prayer tonight is that you will know in your heart the meaning of the Christmas we gather to celebrate tonight – that Christ is born, that God’s Word has become flesh so that you might experience the amazing love of God for you. Merry Christmas.