There's Christmas and then there's CHRISTMAS!
You and I are here today to celebrate. Not the gift giving, or the joyful moments shared with family and friends, nor even for a feast of our favorite foods. We are celebrating first foremost, the birth of Christ our savior. A holy day has dawned upon us. Come, you nations, and adore the Lord. For today a great light has come upon the earth.
SENSE OF SALVATION - But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
Jesus is the primary reason for celebrating in this season, the reason for our joy. Its right there in the word, Christmas. The word Christmas comes from Middle English Cristemasse, which in turn comes from Old English Cristes-messe, literally meaning Christ’s Mass.
But, how Did Christmas Start? - The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, enslaved people were given temporary freedom and treated as equals. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could participate in the holiday's festivities.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
Christmas is a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon, celebrated on December 25. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature.
Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, the Christ, Son of God.
Is Christmas Really the Day Jesus Was Born? - In the early years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a Holy Day - Feast of the Nativity and Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century.
By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
When Christmas Was Cancelled - In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
Washington Irving Reinvents Christmas in America - It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.
English author Charles Dickens, who created the classic holiday tale 'A Christmas Carol’ around this time. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.
The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift-giving.
Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
Who Invented Santa Claus? The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born in Turkey around A.D. 280. St. Nicholas gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors. St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or “Sinter Klaas” for short. “Santa Claus” draws his name from this abbreviation.
In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by it’s first line: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys.
The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today.
The 'Reason for the Season', is YOU...
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” seems to simply be a boring and long list of names. But for the Jewish people, genealogies told a story. They gave identity. They repeated for each generation, the promises of God; fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled.
In particular, this is a genealogy of fulfillment. It is the genealogy of the Son of God. Matthew is asking his readers to remember the covenant made with Abraham: “…your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice…” (Genesis 22:17-18). He wants us to remember the promises made to David: “…And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
When we read this genealogy, we should do so with awareness that the first people to hear it had been waiting a really long time for fulfillment. For generations, they passed on the knowledge of the promises and prophecies of God. So, in this beginning of Matthew’s story, they hear much more than a list of names. They hear fulfillment and faithfulness. They hear hope and love. Through thousands of years of waiting, the promise made in Genesis 3:15 has been kept. The oaths made to Abraham, Moses, David have been remembered. The Lord has been true to his promises.
Reminds us that God is faithful.
There are many occasions in the Old Testament when the God declared the future promise to Israel that there would one day be a New Covenant between them and their God, such as in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
See, days are coming—says the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, though I was their master— says the LORD. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days— says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the LORD!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me— says the LORD —for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin.
On the night of the Last Supper, this everlasting covenant which is Christ, Jesus while in the company of his disciples speaks of its fulfillment in his passion, death and resurrection, with his words during the institution of the Eucharist, saying: “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
“Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Reminds us who we are, really…
The popular idea today is that you have to look deep within yourself to discover your true identity. But, what if you don’t like what you find? What do you do? We could drop our expectations so as to never be disappointed in ourselves and others, or seek the truth about ourselves from the one who created us. Easy, ask God in prayer – Who am I?- God will answer quickly and comprehensively with a bullet pointed list that describes your identity… right? No.
But, with our sin induced confusion about ourselves, God prepared a plan to answer the question for everyone. The answer is in the incarnation, the birth of the Son of God that we celebrate this weekend.
When you find your identity in Christ, in the revelation of who Jesus is and what He has done, rather than on what you find hidden deep inside yourself, you can live life to its truest, not distracted by whatever momentary messages are dictating the way you live.
What does it mean to have your identity hidden in Christ? It means, you abandon any image of yourself that is not from God. … You start believing what God says about you.” Finding your identity in Christ means you do a better job believing that what God says about you is truer than what anyone else (including yourself) says. When you’re tempted to believe that you’re either much better than you really are, or much worse than you really are, look to what the Bible says about you.
Ephesians, in the first chapter says “in Christ” or “in Him” about 11 times and describe a host of incredible things about ourselves that if we truly believed, it would change everything. It says that those in Christ are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (verse 3), chosen (verse 4), predestined and adopted (verse 5), redeemed and forgiven (verse 7), grace has been lavished on them (verse 7), that they are “in the know” on God’s will (verse 9), have been given an inheritance (verse 11), and are sealed by the Holy Spirit (verse 13).
If you come to base your identity in these statements, it roots your identity in something that can’t be changed and can’t go away. Jesus.
We are reminded, why it is we celebrate today.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord”
Jesus is indeed the reason for the season, and so as we glory in the Lord we are moved by the Holy Spirit to sing Gory to God in the highest!
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Those words are also joyfully repeated in the Christmas Hymn, ‘Angels we have heard on High’. Although we are not singing that hymn this year, we would do well to reflect on its words every year.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 185: PL 38, 997-999)
Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man. You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.
Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time. He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.
Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of a virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God. Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.
Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not proceeded from us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.
For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ, were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.
Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become the son of God?
Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.
The Gloria that we sing was first sung by the Angels, the first Christmas hymn on earth that is being sung from all eternity in heaven. It is the ancient and venerable hymn in which the Church, assembled in the Holy Spirit, praises and entreats God the Father and the Lamb. Every note, every word rightly rises from the hearts of the sons and daughters of God in thanksgiving for the mystery of the incarnation.
Pope Benedict XVI, during his homily at Christmas Midnight Mass in 2010 said: “The Church, in the Gloria, has extended this song of praise, which the angels sang in response to the event of the holy night, into a hymn of joy at God's glory - 'we praise you for your glory' ". In the Gloria, we praise the love and goodness of God who does not hesitate to send his only son as the savior and redeemer in the mystery of the incarnation. God’s love and goodness are made visible and tangible in the birth of Christ.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King, O God almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Begotten son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
You take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit. in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Total reconciliation with God and with others
Today’s Gospel speaks of John the Baptist, chosen to announce the coming of the Messiah. “Prepare a way for the Lord,” he calls out and his words are equally meant for us as for the people he directly spoke to.
He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” by their immersion in the waters of the River Jordan and their desire to have their sinful past totally washed away.
‘Repentance’ is not just sorrow for past sins but also a desire for a total and radical change of outlook, a radical and genuine renewal and conversion of heart.
This conversion in turn will bring about the forgiveness of sin, a release, a letting go, a liberation from the chains of sin.
This is how valleys are filled in, mountains and hills laid low, winding ways straightened and rough roads made smooth. This is how each is to have the personal experience in their own heart of the saving power of God.
Through the sacrament of reconciliation and a disposition of seeking and offering forgiveness we open ourselves to further conversion, to an ever deeper change of heart. We need, to find total reconciliation with God and with others.
Isaiah reminds us that we need God’s grace in order that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The peace, meaning, and joy that we thirst for above all else is out of our sinful reach. We need someone to bring it to us, we need a Savior.
He always wants to bring us closer to God, closer to the fullness of life that we long for. But he won’t forcehis way.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.