Are we celebrating the Winter Solstice or the birth of Jesus?
Television advertisers attempt to tell us what the spirit of this season is. On TV we see happy families, shopping for jewelry, laptops, or whatever is the current toy fad. Automobile advertisements are the best. Santa Claus orbits the world in a red Mercedes, An Audi starts, and ice storm, and the one I like the best of all is if you buy a Honda during the “Holidays”, you will be especially blessed. The hand of God will turn on the Christmas lights on your house—you have a new Honda in the driveway. The divine hand helps wrap presents or carries them to the Honda waiting for the lucky person who has one for Christmas. Best of all, the hand of God pushes a moose over a cliff so your new Honda can traverse the mountain pass unharmed.
Probably on Saint Stephen’s Day morning (December 26) Christmas trees will already be on the sidewalk to be picked up by the trash collectors. Christmas will be over for people who began celebrating on Thanksgiving Day, some even since Halloween, or Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or whatever day we pick to celebrate the season. After all, the season is over, and we can go back to our regular way of doing things for the rest of the year.
I have gotten grumpy about all this in past years, but my grumpiness has not made any difference, so I mostly ignore the season and focus as much as I can on the Advent Season, which is actually daunting, and when Christmas Day finally arrives I honestly feel joyful.
During most of December, while I was meditating on the Advent stories in the Gospels, people had Christmas parties and pageants with children singing “Jingle Bells,” argued about the meaning of Christmas, and whether religious scenes and symbols should be on courthouse lawns. My focus, because of Advent was on the Gospel events leading to this day—Christmas. Advent’s concentrates on the coming of the Christ in glory, John-the-Baptist crying out as “one in the wilderness,” and the Annunciation, when Gabriel tells Mary, she is to be the mother of the Messiah.
Of course, we all know that the December date was selected in the early centuries of the Church’s life to counter the rituals associated with the winter solstice and much of what we do during this season has more to do with that tradition than with the Gospel stories. Much of what is considered custom during this season comes from pagan observances of the solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere the winter nights are long and cold, so warming up with wassail or egg nog is probably a good thing.
It is likely Jesus was born in the spring of the year rather than winter. I know someone who believes Jesus was born on August 24. Nevertheless, the December date is a good time to think about the Good News of the Christmas Story.
A Potential for Peace and the Possibility of Reconciliation
The Christmas story is about the potential for peace and the possibility of reconciliation. God’s impoverishes himself as he goes deep into the social structure to bring to reality the promise of abundant life. This message is lost in all the tableaus, caroling, and price roll-backs at Walmart. Because of the trivialization of the Christmas, if any consideration is given to the Nativity of our Lord, Jesus is helpless cherub of a baby, Mary has a painless childbirth, and Joseph is a prop.
However, had we observed the Advent Season, we would have learned in the story told by Luke is filled with human complexity. Soon after the angel Gabriel tells her she is to be the mother of hoped for Messiah and before Mary leaves her home in Nazareth in the Galilean Hills for distant Bethlehem as Joseph’s wife, a trip to visit another woman who also is about to give birth comes first.
Woman to Woman Talk
Mary discovers her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. That child is John the Baptist. Mary becomes pregnant mysteriously. Elizabeth was supposed to be beyond child-bearing years. Mary decides to travel to Judea to tell Elizabeth the news that’s hard to share with others in her community. Elizabeth knows immediately what Mary is trying to tell her. She understands Mary’s problem. Elizabeth more than knows she feels Mary’s news in her own womb. At this moment of mutual joy, Mary sings, “[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary is More than a Figure in a Nativity Scene
Something truly remarkable is happening. The coming Messiah, the Christ, is not coming to be a king as David was king; this child in Mary’s womb is coming to upset the world order and to change the balance of power in favor of compassion and love. This child is the Word of God.
Let us consider this young woman, Mary, for a moment. The Annunciation by Gabriel and the Visitation with Elizabeth is only the beginning of Mary’s journey. She is embarking on a journey that will take her to the agony of Golgotha and the ecstasy of Pentecost. Probably most do not think about Mary’s Journey continuing past Christmas Day; after all, she is only a figure in a nativity scene.
Being selected to be the mother of God is a challenging and terrifying predicament. There are many social ramifications to overcome in this unexpected chain of events. First, she must tell Joseph about her condition. What a shock! What can Joseph do now? Yes, of course, Joseph is a good man who has not condemned Mary for what might probably initially thought of as an “indiscretion.”
Joseph is a devout Jew. He knows the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Joseph is aware of the promise of a Messiah. Nevertheless, he cannot help but wonder about Mary and the baby. Because he must go to meet the demands of the Roman edict for a census by tribe, according to Luke’s rendition of the Holy Gospel, Mary and Joseph leave for Bethlehem.
Because Joseph procrastinated, the couple arrives in Bethlehem too late to find lodgings. They are quartered in a cave used to house animals. The mysteriously conceived child is born while Joseph and Mary settle into the cave. The baby is born without the assistance of a midwife and in the non-sterile environment of hay and animal odors—conditions must have been terrible.
About a week after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph take the infant boy to the temple in Jerusalem for a blessing and inclusion into Jewish tradition. They are greeted by Simeon, an elderly holy man, who declares the infant Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. Both Mary and Joseph are awe-struck. Simeon’s declaration is reinforced some weeks later when three sages from Persia arrive at the house where the Holy Family now resides in Bethlehem. They have used a mysterious object in the sky to find the house. When they find the Holy Family the Persian sages offer, gifts fit only for a king.
A Whispered Word – A Beginning
Elizabeth knew, Simeon in the temple was certain, and sages from a distant land in the east recognized, but it took the whispered words of God to assure Joseph. Finally, he understands. The encounter with Simeon helps erase Joseph’s doubt, and Joseph faithfully takes on the role of husband and father. Joseph now knows that he did not marry an “indiscrete” girl to protect her reputation nor is she simply his young bride—she is a saint.
The Christmas story in the Gospels is a story of real life happening to real people. It is not a fairy tale with a “happily-ever-after” ending. Also, it is not a story about a baby in a manger. It is the story of the beginning of the end of God’s plan of reconciliation and salvation. The story never ends but is enhanced when we individually allow Jesus to become real in our own souls and imaginations.
The Christmas story reminds us of that thin line between God and the world. In an instant, before Gabriel announces to the Mary that she is the Mother of God on the earth there is no God on the earth. In an incalculable moment, the Word of God is with us. As soon as Jesus begins to grow in Mary’s womb, God is with us. God becomes a reality, and the truth of Isaiah’s words is fulfilled. Isaiah proclaimed centuries earlier, “…the Lord himself will give you sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The Word of God is with God and is among us.