I sat in the back, second to the last pew actually on the third Sunday of this Advent season. Behind the pastor was a large, lighted Christmas tree with a star on top. The tree was positioned center stage which meant it was directly below the large cross that hangs there year round. So the image in front of me was the tree topped with a star, with the cross directly behind and partially above the star – almost as if the cross were the tree topper. How appropriate, I thought. After all, it was the star that led the wise men to Jesus but it was the cross for which Jesus came. Christmas is a celebration of the sacred – or at least it is meant to be. Culture has added much to what started as remembering the birth of God’s promised Messiah.
So much has been added over the centuries in fact, that the sacred has become buried under an avalanche of the mundane, the profane, the ordinary, the unrelated, the glitzy, the man made, the marketing, the hype and the hoopla – all these obscure our view of the sacred. Advent calls us to search for, to uncover, to discover and to rediscover all that is sacred in the celebration of Christmas. This is my challenge every Advent season, (which we call the Christmas season or if we are really politically correct, we call this the Holiday Season)
I witnessed this renaming of the celebration of Christ’s birth just last week in a public school classroom. A bulletin board was being put up with “Merry Christmas” but, you guessed it, the teacher was asked to put up “Happy Holidays” instead. Now there are other holidays occurring at this time of the year such as Kwanza and Hanukkah, which are celebrations in their own right of other things. Each holiday comes with its own unique trappings, traditions and practices that add to the avalanche under which lies the sacred of the celebration of the Christ Child’s birth.
Seeing the sacred during this Christmas season takes some extra effort in our culture. Our culture focuses on many other things, sometimes to the exclusion of the actual Christmas story, which is the event of Jesus’s birth. One way we portray what we are celebrating is by decorating with Nativity scenes, whether on our front lawns, inside our homes, in our churches or in our public spaces which are decorated for Christmas. (I should mention in church yesterday, on the stage next to the Christmas tree, was a large Nativity scene) Typically consisting of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a manger, a stable, a donkey, some shepherds, some sheep and three wise men – Nativity scenes are the symbol of the sacred which this season celebrates. When I see a Nativity, I am reminded, God Himself came to earth to live among us. Immanuel – God with us. Jesus’s birth – the sacred miracle buried beneath an avalanche of marketing and mayhem that we have come to consider as synonymous with Christmas.
Today I am searching for the sacred even as I am surrounded by the profane. I want to recognize God’s miracle amid the mundane – I want the sacred miracle that is Christmas to shine through all the cookies, candy, carols, gifts, glitz and glamor that have come to adorn Christmas – an event so spectacular that it needs no man made additions – it is perfect just as it is. I think we have forgotten just how perfect and spectacular God’s gift of His Son to us truly is. This month there are Christmas lights and displays everywhere I go in celebration of the season. Santa, snowmen and reindeer sometimes share the “limelight” or more accurately the Christmas lights with the Nativity – but more often than not they are there alone to represent the Christmas season. No wonder I am having trouble finding the sacred things of Advent.
But they are there. The sacred is in the words of the Christmas carols such as “Joy to the World”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “Away in a Manger”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “The First Noel”, “O Holy Night” and many more songs that beautifully tell the story of Jesus’s birth on the night when God entered into our world. The Holy Child, the sacred One, entering in and deigning to dwell with us for a while. Of course we have added additional songs which we label as Christmas songs such as “Jingle Bells”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “White Christmas”, “Silver Bells” and more. These are fun and festive seasonal songs, but they are also part of the “noise” drowning out the true meaning of our celebration.
It’s the same with all the gift giving that has become synonymous with Christmas. God gave the first gift of Christmas, Jesus. Then the Wise men brought gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But somehow that simple sacred act of giving has been hijacked into the retail industry and Santa Claus combining to bury beneath an avalanche of Christmas gifts each year the sacred, the miraculous gift of Jesus Himself, given to us on that first Christmas. It’s easy to overlook the original gift when it’s buried beneath a pile of presents under the Christmas tree. Uncovering and rediscovering the sacred during Advent is a challenge – but a challenge well worth the effort.
Today my eyes are searching for the sacred in this season of celebration. It is there to be found if I will look for it. The star on top of a Christmas tree points to the original star above the stable, which guided the Wise men on their journey to Jesus. Angels are still part of Christmas decor today because angels were present on that first Christmas night. It was angels who told the shepherds about Jesus’s birth and where to find Him. Even the candy cane has a meaning beyond just being a Christmas candy. It was designed as a shepherd’s crook or a “J” for Jesus, with the colors of white and red symbolizing purity or holiness and Jesus’s blood shed for our sins, respectively.
Christmas lights and lighted candles remind me that Jesus came into this dark world to bring us light. We read in John, chapter one, this – “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
“When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ ” (John 8:12)
Something else Jesus came to give you and me is everlasting life with Him. The evergreen trees and wreaths of Christmas remind me of this sacred truth, that in Jesus is eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
The sacred signs of Christmas are all around me, I just need to look for them and to focus on what or actually who they point me to, and that is Jesus. When my children were young, my mom always had a birthday cake with a Nativity scene on it on Christmas Day. We all gathered around and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus! What better way to celebrate a birthday than with cake? This simple act celebrates the true meaning of Christmas – that unto us a Child is born!
“For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The sacred, miraculous message of Christmas is not lost. However, it does too often become buried beneath layers of man made traditions that have been added on to the celebration of Christmas over the years. But that’s what Advent is all about – clearing away the clutter of the mundane and the profane, making room to receive the sacred – the sacred gift of Jesus, our Savior, Redeemer and coming King. Advent is about seeking and celebrating the sacred. The sacred gift of the Christ Child and all He came to give to you and to me are well worth celebrating. I don’t know about you, but I want to prepare Him room, no matter what I have to throw out to make space for His gifts of forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, comfort, peace, joy, hope, love and life. These are the priceless gifts the Christ child came to give to each and every one who would receive Him and the gifts He offers to each one of us.
This Christmas I will celebrate the sacred miracle –
“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
At Christmas, I celebrate the sacred Holy Child entering into our world to walk with us and to bear our burdens, our sorrows and our sins. Heaven has come to earth. The sacred has entered into the everyday and I can behold it if I have eyes to see the sacred surrounding me. Into a dark world God sent Jesus to be the light of the world. I don’t want to make the mistake the people made at the time of Jesus’s first Advent, when He came as a baby in a manger.
“He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11)
No, Advent says, make room, make haste, make a way, prepare a place – the King is coming!
“Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is He, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty – He is the King of glory.” (Psalm 24:7-10)
sincerely, Grace Day