On Christmas morning couple of years ago, I was walking down Eleventh Street in New Yorkâs Greenwich Village, to prepare for the eleven-oâclock service at my former church. There, at the curb, was someoneâs Christmas tree, laid out for the trash truck. Now, can you imagine this? It was 9:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, and one of the neighbors â who, thankfully, will remain anonymous â had already taken down the decorations, the lights, the glass balls; removed the screws that attached the trunk to the stand; and carried their symbol of the Christmas celebration to the curb for the Department of Sanitation to remove along with yesterdayâs junk mail.
Nine-thirty in the morning on Christmas Day.
It makes sense, you see, in our culture. It makes sense that a Christmas season that starts, at latest, in September and builds into a consumer frenzy in November should come to a crashing climax on Christmas Eve. We mailed our cards, bought our presents, and given our parties. Weâve sung the carols, enjoyed the meals, shared the gifts. Now, letâs relax. Letâs put away all this stuff, clean up all the mess, and enjoy that welcome sense of relief. Itâs time to move on. Good grief, New Yearâs Eve is barely a week away!
Yet, that is not what we celebrate liturgically. This is not the first time this winter that the church has proclaimed a countercultural message. Remember, during Advent, we were told to keep awake, to be still and know that God is God, to prepare in solemnity for the coming of Christ. That alone made us Christians feel a bit Scrooge-like, didnât it?
And now â when our culture says Christmas is over â we are reveling in twelve days of it. And weâre only at day one.
We, in the church, are telling a different story from the one told by our culture. Iâm told that some towns, in an attempt to thwart laws that prevent municipally sponsored manger scenes, have erected a kind of stable out of wood, in which theyâve placed a manger filled with hay, and laid the statue of a babe in it. Just to be sure you donât think this could be the Son of God, they show Santa Claus kneeling in homage.
Thatâs our cultural norm, Iâm afraid: Jolly old St. Nicholas, who comes to give good children gifts â and bad ones lumps of coal. And jolly old Fifth Avenue, that sells the best gifts money can buy.
Our cultureâs idea of Christmas is all about spending, buying, getting more and more stuff. Itâs about rewards and punishments, based on worthiness. Itâs almost demonic.
Yet, our Christian story is not about gifts â although it may well include gifts, as tokens of our love.
Our story is about the redemption of the world.
Our story is about singing praises to our heavenly God, who created us out of dust.
Our story is about this God who became human, one of us.
Our story is about a God who frees all those who trust from Satanâs power and might.
And our story is not over, not complete, not fulfilled. Thatâs true at the level of the Christmas story, which began with the Annunciation. Donât tell the retailers, or else next year theyâll set out Christmas decorations on March 25!
The Christmas story has slogged through morning sickness, and hormonal changes, and nine months of pregnancy â pretty ordinary stuff, hardly festive. Then, one day, the story bursts forth into joy. Thatâs Christmas: out of quiet, humble, simple beginnings comes an event that will rock the world.
And Mary and Joseph donât seem to get it. Maryâs probably decided by now that the encounter with the angel months ago was some kind of hallucination. Here she is, with her working-poor husband in a stable, giving birth among the animals. Then shepherds appear, praising God. Thatâs a lovely thing, I imagine her saying. Arenât the people friendly here in Bethlehem? And still, she doesnât seem to grasp just who she holds in her arms, who suckles at her breast.
Then to complete this chapter, twelve days later, wise ones from the East appear, bringing gifts of unimaginable splendor. Great monarchs, in rich robes, traveling many miles in large entourages.
And Mary, who just days before, was bartering with a local tradesman, exchanging some wild onions she picked for some goat milk â Mary now has a chest of gold, some precious ointment, and some expensive incense.
This marks the end of the chapter, not the birth of the infant savior. And the church commemorates this event on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
On Epiphany Eve, you see, Mary and Joseph received gifts they could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Heavenly and divine gifts, to be sure. Gifts you and I each have received, as well. Gifts we could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Gifts of grace, of redemption, of love.
The gifts themselves had a monetary value in their culture, of course â but thatâs not the point. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh â these gifts served primarily to point to the significance of another gift they had already received: the gift of Godâs grace and redemption and love in the birth of Jesus.
So today and for twelve days hence, we revel in the chapter called âChristmas.â And we do so knowing that the birth of Jesus was the highlight of the story â but not the end of it.
Like so many stories, we really will not grasp the meaning of it until it is completely over. We focus on the beautiful image of a tiny babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. We reveled in that evocative image so much that we missed the point: âborn on earth to save us, him the father gave us.â
And so the Church gives us, not one, but twelve days as a kind of âsecond chanceâ on Christmas.
Twelve days, to see behind the sense of obligation the underlying love that each gift given represents.
Twelve days, to realize how much we are loved by God.
Twelve days, to appreciate how little we deserve that love.
Twelve days, to comprehend that we have done nothing to earn that love.
Twelve days, to believe that God loves us unconditionally.
Twelve days, to revel in this good news of great joy.
Twelve days, to understand what it is to worship Emmanuel, God with us.
Twelve days, to feast on the joy of our redemption.
Twelve days, to spread the word, as tidings of comfort and joy.
Twelve days, to sing, with one accord, our praises to our heavenly Lord.
Twelve days, to let the flames of love lead us to the joys of heaven.
Twelve days, to comprehend how much we, each of us, are capable of giving and receiving the one gift that endures: love.