• Adam Schell

Christmas Isn't Cancelled | What Christmas Is About

Christmas is now just five days away. But, even though Christmas is almost here, the surge in cases of COVID-19 over the last few weeks has caused all of us to rethink how we’re going to celebrate Christmas this year.

So some of us have decided to follow the CDC’s guidelines and we’ve cancelled our trips to see family and friends this year. Some of us have decided to forego our traditional holiday dinners so that we can spend Christmas Day with our families while everyone wears a mask. Some of us have been quarantining in our own homes over the last couple of weeks to make sure we’re not sick before we head home for the holidays. And some of us are just planning on dropping off presents on the doorsteps of our loved ones while we smile at each other through a window.

But no matter how you’re planning on spending December 25th this year, we’ve all realized that this Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.

This Christmas isn’t going to be a normal Christmas.

So, over the last few weeks, a lot of us have wondered if we can celebrate Christmas if we can’t get together with our family and friends. We’ve wondered if we can celebrate Christmas if we’re all opening up our presents over a Zoom call. We’ve wondered if we can celebrate Christmas if we can’t have a traditional holiday dinner. And we’ve wondered if we can celebrate Christmas if we can’t sing “Silent Night” in a sanctuary on Christmas Eve.

But one of the things that I’ve realized over the last few weeks is that even though my plans for Christmas Day are going to be different this year, I’ve still been able to do a lot of the things that I do to celebrate Christmas every year. We still put up our Christmas tree and our outdoor decorations. I’ve still been opening up my Advent calendar every day this month. I’ve been listening to Christmas music. I’ve re-read my favorite Christmas book (which is A Christmas Carol by the way). And I’ve been watching lots and lots of Christmas movies.

So over the last few weeks, I have watched all three of the Home Alone movies, all three of The Santa Clause movies, and all three of The Grinch movies. I’ve watched some Christmas classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. But I’ve also watched Netflix’s newest Christmas movie Jingle Jangle--which is about an old toymaker who finds new hope when his granddaughter comes to visit. And shouldn’t be confused with Jingle All the Way--where Arnold Schwartzenegger fights with Sinbad to come home with that year’s hottest Christmas toy...but I’ve watched that movie too.

But, if you know me, you know there is one movie I look forward to watching at Christmas time more than any other movie. And it’s because this movie reminds me of what we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks. It reminds me that Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate...Christmas is about who we celebrate.

Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate...Christmas is about who we celebrate.

As this movie begins, the snow is falling, covering everything the eye can see with a blanket of white. The temperature is dropping, and after days of below-freezing temperatures, even the local pond has turned to ice. And two little boys slip out of a nice warm house to go ice skating with their friends. But as they walk down the snow-covered streets that no one has even dared to salt or shovel, their conversation doesn't revolve around their snow day, instead, it turns to what every child truly looks forward to this time of year...it turns to Christmas.

And one of these little boys turns to his friend and says, “I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

This is, of course, the beginning of the classic Christmas cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas, and as the story continues to unfold we all begin to realize why Charlie Brown just doesn't understand Christmas. Whether it's Lucy complaining that she never gets what she really wants for Christmas (which is real estate by the way); or Snoopy competing in the super, colossal neighborhood Christmas lights and display contest to win money, money, money; or Sally asking Santa to bring her tens and twenties if he can't handle her extravagant wish list...it's plain to see that the commercialism of Christmas is getting to good ole Charlie Brown.

But the funny thing is that the commercialism of Christmas was getting to Charlie Brown way back in 1965. Do you realize that was 48 years before people lined up in the cold winter weather on Black Friday to bring home a PS4 or an Xbox One? It was 33 years before a creepy little creature with giant eyes called a “Furby” sent moms and dads rushing to the toy store. It was 31 years before folks got into fistfights over Tickle Me Elmo. It was 29 years before middle schoolers went mad over little cardboard disks called “Pogs.” And it was 15 years before the first-ever Christmas toy craze caught on over some spinning cube a guy named Rubik's invented.

This was the 60's. This was the decade that brought us some of our favorite holiday movies like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and even Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. This was a time when Norman Rockwell was still painting Christmas scenes for The Saturday Evening Post. This was a time when Christmas lists were highlighted by Barbie Dolls and board games that cost about six bucks instead of video games consoles and games that could set you back $600.

Now in 2020, when it felt like retailers were putting out Christmas displays before summer break had even ended for our kids, it's almost quaint to hear Charlie Brown complaining about missing out on the real meaning of Christmas. But the truly amazing thing is that we've been complaining about the commercialism of Christmas and we've been trying to remind people of the reason for the season since long before Charlie Brown ever graced the funny pages of our newspapers.

And when I say long, I mean long. We're not talking about a decade or two. We're not even talking about a century or two. We're talking about a time long before the Declaration of Independence was signed and a time long before Christopher Columbus ever dared to sail the ocean blue. We're talking about a time long before Gutenberg invented the printing press and a time long before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a Wittenberg church. So just how long ago are we talking about? Almost 800 years.

You see, it was way back in 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi began working on a way to return the focus of Christmas to worshiping Christ instead of having folks focus on gift-giving – a tradition that dates back more than 1600 years. So Francis petitioned Pope Honorius III to allow him to create a special display in a cave in Greccio, Italy because the small church there wasn't large enough to accommodate midnight Mass on Christmas day. And with the pope's blessing, Francis brought an ox and a donkey to that cave along with a manger filled with hay. And in the wee hours of that Christmas Day, the nativity scene that we see under Christmas trees and out in front of churches this time of year was born.

That's right, the nativity scene–like the one Michelle has been talking about during her storytime with our kids each week this Advent season–was originally created to pull people away from how we celebrate Christmas and return our attention to who we celebrate at Christmas. And it seems that over the centuries, the nativity scene has done just that. Whether it's been done in life-size statues or smaller figurines, it seems like by simply viewing Mary and her babe we are reminded that Christmas is sacred because at Christmas God became one of us.

But sometimes, when we see the figurines and statues in our nativity sets they seem so far removed from the world we actually live in. So it's easy to forget that on that first Christmas day, when God actually became human, the sacred became part of the secular. The divine became part of the mundane. The creator became part of creation.

And it's this idea that has inspired another approach to nativity scenes. Rather than simply placing Mary and Joseph in the traditional barnyard setting, artists from Naples, Italy have been placing the holy family among ordinary people doing ordinary things for 300 years. So instead of only seeing shepherds and wise men, in these scenes, you'll find shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and fruit vendors, fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, and beggars and the poor.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about these Neapolitan nativity scenes is that they didn't get stuck in the 1700s when artists first began to create them. Instead, they continue to be updated every year. So not long ago you would’ve found a Jedi master in the scene baby Jesus. Or another year it was the king of pop, Michael Jackson, standing next to the king of Kings. And, of course, for this year’s nativity sets, you’ll find most of the figurines wearing masks and stand six feet apart.

Now I know what you're probably thinking, what in the world do Jedi masters, Michael Jackson, or face masks have to do with Jesus’ birth? Well, the easiest answer to that question is absolutely nothing.

And that’s because we all know that Jesus’ birth took place in a certain year, on a certain date, at a certain time. And we know that there were certain people (and probably at least a few animals) that were there to witness this history-altering event. And this means that if someone standing beside the manger was fortunate enough to have a smartphone tucked away in their pocket, they could have recorded the whole thing and shown us exactly who was there. And even though I wasn't standing there that first Christmas Day, I feel pretty confident guaranteeing you that nobody was doing the moonwalk when Jesus was born.

So why do these Italian artists include these pop culture figurines if they clearly don't belong in the nativity? Well, I like to think that they're included because the story of Jesus’ birth has always included people who didn't belong there.

The story of Jesus’ birth has always included people who didn't belong there.

Our scripture reading for today will help show you what I mean. And the passage that we’re going to be looking at today comes from Luke chapter 2. And, just as a reminder for you, the book of Luke is basically a biography of Jesus. So in the book of Luke, we’ll find stories about Jesus’ life, his ministry, his miracles, as well as his crucifixion and resurrection. But in the passage we’re looking at today, we’re going to hear about the first people to visit Jesus after he was born. So let’s take a look at Luke 2, we’ll start reading in verse 8. It says:

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.”

Luke 2:8-15 (Common English Bible)

Now when you picture the nativity scene in your mind you may not imagine Star Wars characters…but it’s almost impossible to imagine the nativity without the shepherds. I mean, it just wouldn't be Christmas without that figurine of a young boy cradling a sheep in his arms, or without that slightly older shepherd leading a few ewes from his flock to the bedside of the Messiah. But the truth is that the depictions of the shepherds we find in our nativity scenes aren't exactly accurate.

It is true that shepherding was once a noble occupation for the people of Israel, a calling that was passed down from the fathers of their faith. Everyone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob all the way down to Moses had been shepherds...but something happened to this once-proud profession while the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. Egypt was an agrarian culture that saw shepherding as a waste of good land that could be used to produce better foods. So shepherds were forced down the social ladder of the ancient world and forced into the far corners of every culture around.

And that's exactly where the shepherds found themselves that cold winter's night that was so deep. They found themselves laying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks, far from the minds of practically everyone else in Israel. The reality is that the only time that most people were even aware of the existence of these shepherds was when the shepherds led their flocks onto someone else's land to graze. This dishonest streak in shepherds caused Jews to take a legal stance that actually forbids buying wool, milk, or a kid—as in a baby sheep or goat, not a child—from a shepherd on the assumption that it was stolen property.

So if there was ever a group of people who did not belong beside the manger, it was the shepherds. The shepherds were less than nobody. They were crooks and criminals living on the fringes of society. They were denied basic rights and treated as less than human.

Or, to put it another way, there were so many other people who deserved to be there more than the shepherds did. There were kings and queens, emperors and rulers that were more worthy. There were religious leaders and devout priests who deserved to be there more than the shepherds. There were wealthy wise men in the east, elderly men and women gathered in the temple who belonged there instead of these shepherds.

But there may not have been anyone in all of Israel who needed to be there more than the shepherds. They needed to be there because they lived in a world that could care less if they even existed. They needed to be there because they lived in a culture that treated them with contempt. They needed to be there because they lived in a time where they were hated simply because of their profession. They needed to be there because they lived a life that offered them little to be happy about.

But that night when they met Jesus, it didn’t matter if the world knew they existed…because God knew they did. On that night, it didn’t matter if everyone else treated them with contempt…because God treated them like honored guests. On that night it didn’t matter if the rest of the world hated them…because God showed them how much he loved them. And on that night it didn’t matter if they had anything to be happy about…because the shepherds were there when joy came to this world.

On that night there may not have been anyone in all of Israel that needed to be at baby Jesus’s side more than the shepherds. And there may not be any other person in the nativity scene that we need to be there more than the shepherds.

Because when God invited the shepherds to be the first ones to see his son, God showed us something incredible about who God is. When God invited the shepherds—people that didn’t belong in the rest of the world—God showed that he loves every single one of us. And at the first Christmas God promised us that we all belong.

At the first Christmas God promised us that we all belong.

You belong. You belong. God didn’t just come for kings and queens. God came for you. God didn’t just come for priests and pastors. God came for you. God didn’t just come for wise men and angels. God came for you.

And that’s what Christmas is really all about. Christmas reminds us that God loves you enough to come into this world and become one of us. God loved you enough to experience all the ups and downs, and joys and sorrows in this life, so that God can really understand what it’s like to be you. God loved you enough to experience the worst that humanity has to offer—when Jesus was crucified on that cross—so that God could forgive you of anything and everything that separates you from him.

And God did it all because God wants you to belong to him. So as you sit down over the next few days and celebrate this Christmas, never forget what Christmas is about. Christmas isn’t about presents. Christmas isn’t about decorations. Christmas isn’t about special services that happen at our church. And Christmas isn’t even about being with our family. Christmas isn’t about how we celebrate.

Christmas is about who we celebrate. And at Christmas, we celebrate a God who loves you enough to send his son into this world for you. And as long as we remember that Christmas isn’t cancelled.