Sermon for Advent Wednesday, December 14, 2011 Philippians 1:15-18a
Lately I’ve heard a lot of people say things like: Keep the Christ in Christmas! Or: Keep the Mass in Christmas—go to Mass and worship on Christmas eve and Christmas day! Or: Keep the X [the Greek letter] in X-mas because the early Christians spoke Greek! Some of you have heard me talk about the phrase Happy Holidays. Many people get very frustrated when others wish them a Happy Holiday instead of a Merry Christmas but that phrase, “happy holiday,” is a Christian phrase. It comes from the Old English phrase “hāligdæg” which means “Holy Day”. So wishing someone a happy holiday is wishing them happy holy day. A friend of mine told me that she always figured saying “Happy Holidays” is easier than saying “Have a blessed season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, including the commemorations of Thomas, Stephen, John, the Holy Innocents, Santa Lucia, Saint Nicholas, and Kadie Luther, the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord 1, 2, and 3, Epiphany, Name of Jesus day, and Baptism of our Lord. That doesn’t even count the secular holidays of New Year’s, first day of winter, Boxing day (if your Canadian or British) and Elvis’ birthday.
The intention of all those who are frustrated with the common use of the phrase Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, as well as all those other injunctions to remember the proper meaning of words and season, is a very good intention. Their hope, I would guess, is to be certain that we all remember that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Emanuel, God with us. The birth of Jesus. I admire this goal very much. As I said on Sunday, we are all called to be like John the Baptist and point to Jesus and say, through our words and actions, Look! There’s the lamb of God! The light of the world! The Son of God!
It is easy to feel discouraged when we see Christmas so infected with commercialism. There are times it seems that the whole month of December is jammed full of nothing but ways to spend money. We feel guilty if we don’t get just the right gift. We compete with neighbors for the most well decorated house and lawn. We are determined to make it the most wonderful time of the year no matter what the cost! There are huge social pressures to have or attend parties and celebrations, make perfect meals and have ALL the family around for the picture perfect family gathering to celebrate.
It seems like our culture has taken the Christmas story and turned it into a cash cow, making it serve our own selfish purposes. TV stations show Christmas specials in order to sell comercial time, not because they particularly believe anything those shows depict. Shopping malls play Christmas music so as to encourange people to buy more gifts and spend more money, not because they actually believe the Christmas message. The travel industry makes a killing this time of year, too, and the fact that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus is probably no where in their priority list. When you think about it, it can feel somewhat hopeless. It is easy for that tiny baby in the manger to get lost underneath all of that.
Or is it?
In the text we heard this evening from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we may hear something different that can give us hope. Paul is writing to people in the early church in the city of Philippi and giving them some reassurances about people in their community who, even though they are talking about Jesus and teaching about him, may be acting from less than scrupulous motives. “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill,” he writes. This is quite true in today’s time just as it was then and very few other times of the year is this more readily visible than during the Christmas season. Paul continues, we “proclaim Christ out of love….the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” Paul would have every reason to be angry or resentful of those who proclaimed Christ out of selfish ambition, those who played Christmas songs just to make a dollar or who did any other of a million things to cheapen the message of God’s love for us in his Son, Jesus. After all, Paul was in prison because of his faith when he wrote this letter. And yet he writes, “What does it matter?” It only matters, “that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”
Paul isn’t saying that it doesn’t matter what we Christians do when it comes to sharing the story of God with others, even if it is only the part of the story we hear at Christmas. It truly does matter a lot. He spills a good deal of ink writing to the early church in many towns explaining that how we live really matters and the importance of those who are Christians living in such a way that others can see that Jesus makes a difference in our lives. But here he is saying that even people who are acting from selfish motives can still be used by God to proclaim the truth of God’s love and grace for the world in Jesus. Even the over commercialized Christmas season we have today can and is still used by God to speak to people about his love for the world.
Sometimes that is hard to see, but think of this. Every time a store clerk tells you Happy Holidays, they are telling you happy Holy Days even if they do not realize it. Every December when the radio stations and Wal-Marts around the country begin to play Christmas music, there will be countless people who hear the word Christ over and over. Silent Night is still one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time and who can even count the number of people who hear about and even find themselves singing about that silent and holy night so long ago with the Son of God, love’s pure light every day between Thanksgiving (or even before) and December 25th. Many may not even set foot in a church, but there they are in the aisles of grocery stores, shopping mall food courts, front seat of their cars humming along to the radiant beams from thy holy face, and the dawn of redeeming grace. Christ our savior is born. Who knows how many have sat in their living rooms and heard the voice of Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas special recite the words from Luke 2 “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men……that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
No matter how hard any of us may try to take the Christ out of Christmas, to make it into nothing but a commercial, secular holiday, we just can’t do it. Jesus keeps finding his way back in even in the ways we least expect him. That IS what Christmas is all about: not our ability to worship or celebrate properly, but that, despite our inability to do so, God keeps coming to us no matter what.