Authored by: The Rev. Albert Kennington, Vicar, Immanuel Episcopal Church, Bay Minette, Alabama
Copyright by Grace Publishing Company, Atmore, Alabama; reprinted with permission.
When publisher Sherry Digmon asked me to write for the December 2020 issue of atmore, magazine she did not mention Covid or hurricanes or this contentious election year or other miseries. But she and you and I know this year of 2020 has been and still is a hard time for lots of people.
As I write this in time to make her deadline, I’m still waiting on a new roof and a new fence, thanks to Hurricane Sally. Covid is on the rise all around the world, including here in home territory. The aftermath of the election is still rumbling, and we’re a long way from healing the unity of Americans. I hope we believe in our Constitution enough to keep striving for “a more perfect union.” I also hope that by the time you read this, 2020 hurricane season will truly be over.
For many of us, Christmas means celebrating together. Celebrating. Together. Two big words with big meanings. Celebrating means remembering and claiming memories of joy and sadness in a mix and finding reason to say, as God said at the end of each day of creation, “This is good.” Together means being with family, friends, and strangers around a holiday table, or in church with special music, or feeding hungry people in shelters. Together may mean parties and reunions with parades and bright lights and buying and giving and getting gifts. Together may mean sending cards and emails and texts to loved ones. Some of this will happen this year, although not for all of us, and not all of this will happen safely.
What people think about Covid and celebrating together differs from one end of a spectrum to another. Even among families and close friends, opinions about the political implications of Covid precautions sometimes lead too quickly to heated arguments, hurt feelings, and estrangement.
Meanwhile, “the holidays,” as they are called, approach. As they approach, many among us can not afford a Thanksgiving turkey or a Black Friday shopping spree nor a Christmas loaded with feasting and gifts. Lots of folks lost jobs some time back. Paychecks stopped. Instead of decisions about a Christmas menu or a favorite gift, decisions are about rent, or food, or medicine, or worse. In too many households, there are empty places because of Covid. As “the holidays” approach, there are still homes violated by trees through the roof and the stench of rotting hurricane detritus, in spite of valiant efforts to rescue and clean up.
Meanwhile, there is Jesus who is the reason for the season. Where do we find Jesus in “the holidays?”
The Gospel according to Luke contains the only story of the birth of Jesus we have. Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable in Bethlehem of Judea and laid in a manger. To us from the farm, this is a feed trough for cattle. Joseph was an honorable, hard working carpenter caught homeless on a long journey he was required by law to make in an oppressed land. He found what lodging he could for his beloved wife, Blessed Mary, even though it was in a cow shed. God’s angels sent out the birth announcement in the Judean sky to shepherds keeping their sheep. Those rugged men and their smelly sheep were the first to come and adore him.
They heard the angels announce, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord . . . a savior.”
Given the stress of our time and the popular values which often characterize our celebrating together, I think it may be hard to find Jesus in “the holidays,” especially in a hard time such as ours now. Even if you and I know Jesus, and I hope and pray we do, we must look for him still, and listen to him, and find him not sweetly ensconced in our festivities but in the simple, pure love of his coming to us among the harshness of our world.
Jesus was born among people in a hard time. He grew up to work with his hands in Joseph’s carpenter shop. He learned Torah from his parents and neighbors. He made his first adult friends among hardy fishermen who pulled nets aboard boats on the sea of Galilee. He gained attention, and notoriety, because he spent time with the poor, the sick, the despairing. He cared for lepers and paupers. He walked among the poor in spirit and the persecuted and called them blessed. He wept at the grave of a friend and promised resurrection to eternal life. He endured the harshest of criticism from the powers of the world, and the voices of their sycophants, and surrendered to death on the cross for the simple, holy, profound sake of love for all.
What does Jesus need of parties and galas and presents with tinsel and so many of the trappings of the holidays? What needs Jesus who knew no place to lay his head for reunions and festive tables?
Jesus never asked that his birth be remembered or celebrated. You will not find such an asking in the Gospels. Luke is the only one which recorded his birth. Matthew recorded a scene with Wise Men when Jesus was a little boy with his family living in a house. Mark and John did not write of his birth at all.
Jesus commanded that we remember his death until he comes again. He did so presiding at the end of his last Passover supper which he, as an observant Jew, kept faithfully. He took a left over piece of matzah (unleavened bread) and a cup of wine, blessed God for both with new meaning, and told his followers to keep doing this until he comes again.
Jesus also told us that if we loved him to keep his commandments: Love God with all our being, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
We who cherish Christmas customs, and I do surely love them, do so for ourselves, and maybe more so than for Jesus.
My reading of ancient history is that Christians chose a date for Christmas and celebrated it because we needed it. In the long ago distant dark ages, where winters were long and dark and cold was cruel, they needed the relief of light and a reason to celebrate. We are not so far from these ancestors of ours.
The date of December 25 was set by Christians in the early fourth century, and the root causes are obscured in ancient history. But, it is known that the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered a Christmas celebration in Rome on this date in the year 336 AD. There are likely both political and evangelistic purposes to be found in this. Constantine had accepted Christianity as the religion of the empire (although he was not baptized until shortly before his death). The mid-winter celebration of the birth of Christ by the emperor could overshadow pagan mid-winter celebrations and make the birth of Christ, Son of God, to be more important than the birth of the mid-winter sun.
Call this time of year by what names you may – Advent, Christmas, the Twelve Days, Epiphany, Carnival, Mardi Gras — all these times in sequence bring festivity to mid-winter, even in the Deep South. But, all through Christian history, at least in the European and American side of it, there was periodic opposition to the revelry of the December season because the celebrations were more important than the savior. There’s always the risk that our Christmas celebrations, now for commercial and social reasons, rather than political, are more important than the savior, even though Christians can still claim evangelism.
At Christmas this year, as I learned in by-gone years, I yearn to see anew and afresh Jesus the savior who is Christ the Lord. I believe in him. I follow him, at least with good intentions. I have given most of my life to being a minister of his Gospel and a priest in his church. But I am a man, mortal, weak, sinful, and always thankful to hear from the Christmas angels there was born to us a savior who is Christ the Lord. It is him I pray to see and find anew this Christmas.
I grew up in a mostly church-going family. Most of these years for me was in a church which did not observe nor celebrate Christmas for the simple reason that December 25 could not be found in the New Testament. They were right about this date, but it was confusing to me that Christmas was celebrated in our homes. Thank God, it was from my mother’s Bible reading in our home that I learned the stories from Luke and Matthew. It was my childhood farm that I walked out into the night on a Christmas Eve and saw bright stars and heard the cattle lowing.
It was after my big sister’s death the week before Christmas when I was just 19 years old, when I had no church to come home to and no Christmas worship – but from Mama’s Bible reading, a meager tree in our living room, and stars above the farm, that I knew the sweet savior of Bethlehem.
Twenty years ago, these memories came afresh to me, when my mother had a stroke on the anniversary of my sister’s death. She lingered until the day after Christmas and died when her last grandchild came home. By this time, I was the priest of an historic Mobile Episcopal parish, and on that Christmas Eve, I celebrated a midnight mass with majestic pipe organ, choir, incense, and all the rest, and I went home to a beautifully decorated house.
Yet, two days later, when I learned on my drive to her bedside that she had died, I knew the sweet consolation and comfort of our Christmas savior. And, as always, our savior is born to us.
Jesus is the reason for the season. This tired old cliche is forever true and forever good news.
So, what about Christmas in this hard time? I think that people who yearn for Jesus the Savior will find him if they open their hearts to him, learning that he came not to fix all problems and make all bad things go away in the moment. Jesus came to save us from the ultimate despair of hopeless sin and death. Mainly, Jesus came to love us and show to us that love is the ultimate reality and command for our lives. In Jesus’s perfect love, there is nothing which can be lost to his love, not in Covid, not in hurricanes, not in politics, not in the infinity of God.
So, what about Christmas and celebrating together? In the 78th year of my life and the 51st year of our marriage, I can not give you the details of what my wife and I shall keep, but, God willing, there will be a tree a’lit in our home, and some gifts, and lots of calls and texts among family and friends. I have no idea who might be at table with us on the holy day. We know that at home all of our children and grandchildren will not be together. We may make use of Zoom for contacts.
I also don’t have a clear view of the Christmas Eve service in my church where, by God’s grace, I shall officiate and preach this year. We may be a modest gathering in face masks and socially distanced. We may not sing, unless, weather permitting, we gather in the church yard in a big circle with candles and sing “Silent Night.”
We know that this Christmas will not be the same as our best memories. Except that, we know, because we have learned, that this Christmas, Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.