A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Spelling the Word

We are in the season of gift-giving. But during Christmas we must also be able to receive those gifts given to us. And receiving that gift, celebrating it, using it – can be just as challenging if not more so than giving.

The question throughout Advent – the four weeks of preparation before Christmas – challenged us to watch and wait, to let go and forgive, to shed those distractions of our lives, to give of ourselves for the sake of others. These were the disciplines of Advent.

But now the gift of Christ is given to us. The Gospel states that the light of the world has come; the light has shone in the darkness, a light no darkness can overcome. This is the gift of God, the life of Jesus, to the world (John 1:3-5)

How shall we receive this most precious gift? And how does this gift make a positive difference in our lives shrouded in darkness?

The answer may lie in how well you can spell. How’s your spelling? I learned how to spell by doing reps; I had to practice spelling a word. I also learned how to spell by getting beyond the disappointment of the mistakes, mistakes which were bound to happen no matter how good I was at spelling.

The famous artist, Rembrandt (1606-1669), painted the “Holy Family” in the 17th century. In the painting, he portrays the nativity as if it were an event taking place in 17th century Holland. The attire and furnishings are what one would find in a typical Dutch home from Rembrandt’s own day.

In addition to Joseph standing and an angel hovering in the background, Mary is seated at the centre of the painting with an opened, well-thumbed book, presumably the Bible, held open by her left hand. Her right hand, on the top of a rocking cradle, has pulled aside a covering to reveal a soundly sleeping Jesus. Mary’s head is turned from the book to gaze upon the infant.

Whether or not Rembrandt intended it, the painting represents different ways to encounter and understand the ‘word of God’:

On the one hand, there are the Scriptures, the book that Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works in the background. The Word of God is to be found in the Bible. We read the words and find we are addressed by the Word of God. We read them again and again – like learning how to spell. That is why the book is well-thumbed. Rembrandt pictures Mary as one who knows well the word of God and who ponders it in her heart.

But she does not ponder the page alone. She also ponders the infant beside her, “the Word made flesh”, rather than the Word made paper and ink. The Word is a blood-warmed, breath-enlivened human sleeping beside his mother.

I have the impression looking at this painting that when Mary returns to her reading, she will understand what she reads at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the Word made flesh. At the same time, when she tends to the child, she will understand the child at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the words in the book. Back and forth between Word made flesh and Word through words is the pattern suggested by Rembrandt’s painting.

This is how we learn to ‘spell’ our baptism in Christ — learning not only the words in the Bible, but more importantly for us Christians living in the 21st century, learning to know the living Christ in our hearts and in others and in the world today. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

How do we live Christ in the world today? How do we tend to the Christ child in our midst?

Let the light be seen! Let the good gift of Christ within us shine forth anew, for the world to see! Those words are spoken at every baptism to the baptized: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven!” (Matthew 5:16). The light wasn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel, but put on a lampstand (Matthew 5:15)!

You hold the light of Christ in your heart. There is no justification to hide it. There is some good there that the world so desperately needs. And you have it!

A royal priesthood we are! A holy nation! God’s own people! In order that we might proclaim Christ (1Peter 2:9). Martin Luther argued for the ‘priesthood of believers’. In other words, we all receive the grace of God for ministry, not just the religious professionals. That is why the baptized receives a crown – we are all now princes and princesses in the kingdom of God.

How do we live out our priesthood?

Another artist, perhaps not as well known, lived during the same time as Rembrandt. George Herbert’s life (1593-1633) overlapped with Rembrandt’s. Although the poet and painter may never have met or even known of each other’s work, I find it interesting to consider Rembrandt’s “Holy Family” in light of some lines from Herbert’s poem that resonate with the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “We say amiss, this or that is; Thy word is all, if we could spell.”

How do we ‘spell’ the Word of God? Listen to a portion of a poem written by Thomas Troeger (in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, WJK Press, Louisville, 2010, p.189-193):

“How do you spell the word? /Where do you search and look – /Amidst the chaos and cries you’ve heard /Or in a well-thumbed book? /Hold back the swift reply, /The pious, worn cliché … /Instead, let all you do /Embody truth and grace, /And you will spell the word anew /In every time and every place.”

I must admit I had to practice a few times spelling ‘Kirubakaran’ before getting it right. Every name has meaning – this is also something we learn from the Christmas story: starting with the name of the newborn Messiah, Jesus – Immanuel, God is with us – the salvation of the world (Matthew 1:18/Isaiah 7:14). I was pleased when you told me that the name Roselyn takes, in your native language, means literally – “Christ who gives mercy.”

Today, as Rose is baptized, she receives the great gift of Christ in her life. May she grow to know, and live out, this mercy, forgiveness and grace.

May we all spell the word anew in every time and every place.