Celebrating Christmas is Risky Business
“Celebrate” is one of those words that must make non-native English speakers tear their hair. We celebrate something wonderful happening with joy and (usually) food. Or we celebrate a special day on the nearest Monday—like Memorial Day. Or we celebrate a person for their gifts or accomplishments, meaning we pay attention to them and share their story with others. Or, a clergy person may celebrate a marriage or holy communion, meaning they enact it (remember, as United Methodists, we affirm that holy communion is not just a memorial of God’s activity—it is a moment when we and God are especially present to each other).
So, which of these things do we mean when we talk about celebrating Christmas ... or might we mean all of them? Let’s take a look.
Certainly, we pay attention to the day itself and to Christmas Eve as a special day on which many of us refrain from our normal work. We have great appreciation for those in medical work and transportation and hospitality who do not get the opportunity to celebrate on the 24th or 25th. Perhaps this is the most external expression of what it means to celebrate the holiday.
We also celebrate the idea of Christmas and the promise of “peace on earth and good will toward all” that the shepherds heard on the hills outside of Bethlehem so many years ago. We honor God’s gift to the world by giving gifts to each other. But I wonder if we celebrate the risks that God took that day. Even without the “Murder of the Innocents” the risk of infant mortality in occupied territory in the Middle East must have been as high in that day as it remains in ours. We know from the time of Jesus’ baptism that Satan tempted him with a vision of invulnerability that Jesus refused. Power took on weakness and Love opened itself to the possibility of rejection and instead of meting out Justice for the beloved, God took on flesh. Who can really comprehend this, much less, lift it up in ways that help others see the miracle?
Even if we can’t ever be satisfied with the ways it is expressed by preachers or poets or songwriters or choreographers, we do celebrate the hope and joy that the day points to with special events and, of course, special foods. We have people that we want to be with because of the circle of relationship which exists between us, and the relationships we hope to create with them. Sometimes this is joyful and we can celebrate with abandon. Sometimes it is poignant, as we are temporarily separated. Sometimes it is painful—when people are missing from our circle, through death or broken relationship or changes in their lives or our own. We put a lot of energy into this aspect of celebration. Parties leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; travel to be with family or making space for family to be with us; planning special breakfasts, dinners and gift giving to clothe the day in celebration. I even have Christmas socks! Somehow, on its own, this doesn’t feel like enough.
What if we thought about the other definition of celebrate—to enact, or consecrate or officiate? How would we think about a celebration of Christmas that actually carried within it the meaning of the incarnation rather than trying to explain or describe it? The “guest list” for the nativity might give us a clue about our own guest list—the poorest of the poor, encamped outside the city; enemies of the regime who follow different religious practices; faithful people (like Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon and Anna) who were a bit odd in their excessive devotion; and all of creation (represented for us by stars and animals). The invitation coming to each one in the way they could receive it—high holy day for Zachariah, celestial activity for the magi, angels for shepherds and the young couple, prophetic promises for Anna and Simeon. This “celebration” is stretched out over months—a series of encounters in a variety of settings that changed everything.
Could we “celebrate” Christmas by letting the reality of the incarnation and our awe at the risks of love that God took and continues to take shape our journeys?
Loving God, consecrate our lives to your purposes so that we celebrate Christmas in encounters, in season and out of season, throughout the year ahead. Amen.