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A former editor of the Christian Century, John M. Buchanan, wrote a column several years ago in which described he an unusual and powerful Christmas sermon:
One of the most memorable sermons that I ever heard, one of the very few I actually remember – was a Christmas Day sermon preached by Charles Leber. At the time, he and Ulysses Blake were co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church on Chicago's South Side. Leber's sermon was title 'Another Roman Holiday.' He explained that the early church chose December 25 to celebrate Jesus' birth even though everyone knew the birth had happened sometime in the spring. Dec 25 was the beginning of the Romans' yearend holiday, which Leber said was quite a bash: seven straight days of eating, drinking, and reveling. The Christians did not participate in these revels. They decided to draw attention to themselves be rejecting the celebration. And so, to provide an alternative and to help them resist the sensual temptations of the Roman holiday, they came up with Christmas. I don't know about the historical accuracy of that story, but it made a great sermon, and it provides a useful way to address the annual dilemma of how to celebrate the incarnation in a culture that's going a little crazy. (John M. Buchanan, "Song in the City," Christian Century, December 13, 2005, 3)
The Puritans proscribed Christmas celebrations as a pagan observance. They obviously needed to listen to Leber's sermon. Thankfully, the Puritans no longer rule and their insistence on strict conformity and narrow readings of Scripture have yielded to religious liberty. If you choose to celebrate Christmas, and I hope that you will, then celebrate the wonder of transcendent mystery – God's loving presence – in our world.
Gifts, trees, parties, family, worship services, music, art, decorations, cards, special foods – all of the myriad ways in which we commemorate the season when rightly understood are symbols that point to that wondrous transcendent mystery.
Attempts to literalize the Nativity story necessarily fail. Jesus' disciples only began to think that his birth was important after he died. Consequently, the Nativity story is pure romantic fiction. But that does not emasculate the Nativity story; its real power, like that of any good story, is the ability to evoke a fresh perspective, a new experience, and a transformation in its hearers.
One Christmas during the European trench warfare of World War I, Allied and Axis soldiers warily watched one another across no-man's land. Then something amazing happened. These warriors, committed to vanquishing their opposing foe, set down their arms and to the consternation of their superior officers spontaneously declared a Christmas truce. They joined in singing carols, exchanged gifts, and shared Christmas cheer with one another.
Imagine a world in which everyone followed that example, a world with no more war, no more greed, no more mass slaughter of innocents. This exemplifies a story's power to draw its hearers into the wonder of a transcendent mystery that brings life instead of death, joy instead of sadness, and love instead of emptiness. This is the power of Christmas, a power we can observe when our communities annually become just a little nicer, a little more generous, and a little more caring for a few December days.
May your Christmas be such a Christmas, i.e., a truly blessed and merry Christmas that lasts all year long.