Messages from Pastor
GIFTS FROM THE BLUE
The Church did not always celebrate the day of Christmas in its calendar. Easter and Good Friday were the original two big days because they captured the essence of Christianity – God died and rose in Jesus for us. Next came the celebration of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit, because without the spirit there is no belief that God came in Christ, died and rose for us.
Christmas fills in the trinity of big holidays only after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and required everyone in his empire to do so, too. December 25th was chosen for two vague reasons: it had been celebrated before Christianity as the birth of Mythra, the patron of the Roman Army’s religion; and because it marks the first noticeable increasing of daylight from December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The sun was coming back, and a celebration was appropriate.
We do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. We don’t even know the year since it is pegged to King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. Tradition puts the event in Bethlehem (the City of King David from 1000 B.C), but all his life Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a small town way in the north hinterlands, nowhere near Bethlehem. The two Bible birth stories (one in Matthew, a different one in Luke, none in Mark or John) cleverly weave these two cities into the incarnation of God into Jesus, but in different ways.
Alas, God does many things about which we are not totally sure.
Although we all know the baby Jesus and his mother are the chief figures of our Christmas holiday; the celebration of Christmas was first associated with St. Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (then Greece, today Turkey). He lived from 270 to 343 AD. His day is celebrated on December 6th – prior to Constantine this was, in effect, “Christmas”. He was known as a giver of secret gifts to the needy in his diocese – putting coins and treats in the shoes people left outside their simple homes as part of their custom of leaving their dirty shoes outside their otherwise cleaner homes. St. Nicholas was one of the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, who signed the original Nicene Creed.
In Europe St. Nicholas somehow morphed into the Dutch Sinterklass. Like his Greek original, he was associated there with random gift giving to the poor and needy. In his case, in snowy Holland, by tossing coins down chimneys. How St. Nicholas and Sinteklass became associated with the celebration of Christmas 19 days after his day is not quite clear; but, it is easy to see how random, gracious, unmerited gift giving can be associated with the unmerited gift of his Son by God to us at Christmas.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, first published in 1823 but attributed to Clement Clark Moor (a New York doctor whose home is still marked on 9th Avenue) in 1837, depicts St. Nick as an elf-like tiny person, in a “miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer” bringing small presents to children by descending down their chimneys. The presents are still “out of the blue”, because no mention is made of the children being good or bad.
The point of all of this is not gift giving to children based on merit and behavior. We should not use the celebration of God’s entering our sinful world to redeem it at great cost, to entice our children into good behavior. Santa is not the all-knowing Oz who “sees you when you’re sleeping” – Santa came from St. Nicholas who gave graciously to those in need. Christmas is best celebrated by sharing what we have with the needy – even if that means no Lexus with a bow this year.
Children being naughty or nice was added with the 1934 song written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie for Eddie Cantor’s radio show. This removed the gift giving associated with the celebration of Christmas from the realm of grace – unmerited gifts “out of the blue” – and placed it as gifts prompted by good behavior. This is not the spirit of Christmas we celebrate as Christians today. We celebrate God sending his son from his grace, not because we were obedient, or good, or “nice”!
That’s what we Lutherans call GRACE. Grace is God’s love for all people in spite of their sin. Grace is God choosing Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, and making them the parents of all Israel. Grace is God choosing David to be the greatest King of Israel, in spite of him being the last of several brothers, the most puny, with wandering eyes for Bathsheba. Grace is God coming in Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us. Grace is loving the unlovable. Grace is gifts placed in our shoes when we need them most. Grace is gold dropped down our chimneys out of the blue. Grace is God bringing presents to rich and poor alike. Grace is God healing sick children, or taking them to himself when healing is not the best solution. Grace is what we celebrate at Baptism. Grace is what we celebrate at Holy Communion. Grace is the simple one word summary of every good sermon. Grace is what every tiny child represents. Grace is what every elderly person will receive from God in due time.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s unfailing, unalterable, faithful grace.
Grace is not God giving us everything we demand (the Lexus with the bow, a new flat screen TV), but everything that we need. Grace is not God going against divine principles to manipulate lives and history, but remaining consistent so ultimately science, education and technology can cure disease and correct human problems. Grace is forgiveness in the face of sin, not rampant destruction of sinners here and now. Grace is patient.
May the Grace of God fill you as we celebrate Jesus’ gracious entry into our un-gracious world. Naughty or nice, Grace is God’s gift to you at Christmas. Pass it on.
We have been involved in many activities and projects over the years, and we invite you to learn by example how you can help your community together with Advent Lutheran Church.