30 November 2015

Is Christmas about us?

From St. Francis of Assisi church
Teutopolis, Illinois
Ever since Saint Francis of Assisi gathered people and animals to reenact, as it were, the Birth of the Christ Child in Greccio in 1223, Christians have used small statues to represent the Incarnation of the only begotten Son of God. Many of these Nativity sets, as we call them in the United States of America, have been treasured heirlooms and people take great delight in viewing Nativity sets from different parts of the world. Such as the case yesterday at the third annual Nativity Tour at the First Baptist church in Decatur where 500 Nativity sets were put on display.

According to a report by WICS, the chairman of the event, P.J. Patterson, said the Nativity Tour "helps us to focus back on ourselves, the meaning of Christmas as Christians. Families that are just stressed out over this and that about Christmas and really reflect the true meaning of Christmas" [more].

He is right to say that looking upon Nativity sets can help us to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas - indeed, this is their very purpose - but should they help us focus back on ourselves? Is this what Christmas is all about? Is Christmas about us?

Watching the video, it seems clear that the quotation attributed to Patterson is complete and a jumbling together of what was a series of interconnected statements. I point this out to note that my reflections that follow should not be taken as a criticism of Patterson or of the First Baptist church; I have been misquoted in the media and know how tricky it can be to express yourself both well and in a manner a reporter understands. Rather, the following reflections should be taken as an attempt to point out the growing self-absorption present in society today in general and among Christians in particular.

Now, then, back to our question: Is Christmas about us? The answer is revealed - or, perhaps, concealed - in the announcement of the angel(s) to the shepherds:
"Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 among men with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:10-14).
Notice, if you will, that while the message is given to the shepherds (and, hence, to us), it is not in the first place about the shepherds (or us). It is instead about the newborn Child of Bethlehem and what the Infant King means for the shepherds (and for us). We might say, then, that Christmas is primarily about God's merciful love toward us sinners, and only secondarily about us sinners.

The season of Advent still maintains a penitential character, albeit not as severe as that of Lent. We are called in these days to prepare to meet the King of kings and the Lord of lords when at least he comes in his glory, as we heard proclaimed yesterday on the first day of Advent. If we are to meet him as his friends, we must examine our lives, confess our sins, and strive to live in holiness. Confident of his readiness to forgive a repentant sinner, we can be at peace as await his Second Coming.

All of this is possible because the King who is to come first came at Bethlehem. The recognition of this merciful condescension necessarily leads to the praise and glory of God because of his goodness to us, because he first loved us.

Christmas, then, is only about us inasmuch as it is about God's love revealed for us in so surprising a way.

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