Summary: A reflection on Christmas
THE THREE-FOLD RESPONSE TO CHRISTMAS
When Pope Julius I, in the year 353, authorized December 25th to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus; who would have ever thought that it would become what it is today. When Professor Charles Follen, in 1832, lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America; who would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today.
It’s been a long time since 1832, and even longer since 353, and things have changed a great deal. It’s been longer still since that dark night brightened by a special star in which Jesus was born. Yet, on this Christmas morning we have another opportunity to pause again and, in the midst of all the excitement, extravagance, elaborate decorations and expensive gifts, to reflect on the event of Christmas and the person whose birth we celebrate.
But this historical scene we’ve just created illustrates perfectly for us just how difficult it actually is to reflect on Christmas; because as much as things have changed since that first great Christmas, or the year 353, or the year 1832, things have also remained very much the same. The story is the same, the reason is the same, the hero is always the same, and the outcome never changes – the story is so reassuringly familiar, isn’t it? But this is precisely where the challenge lies…
See friends, during the Advent season, and especially on Christmas day, familiarity is a particular challenge for us as Christians. We need to bear in mind that for some, the Christmas story has been regularly heard since childhood. I’d imagine that, for most of us gathered here today, the Christmas story is one that we could retell in our sleep. We’ve probably seen the nativity scene so many times that we could position the stable just so, place the shepherds, wise-men and angels in all the right spots and still leave room for Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus.
It’s true; annual rehearsals have made it all the more difficult to wonder at the miracle that is Christmas, to ponder deeply the truth of that first great Christmas and to render to God the appropriate praise and glory in giving him thanks for it.
As the late American writer, E.B. White, once said: “To perceive Christmas through all its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.” Because with every year that passes our familiarity with the story grows.
So this morning we face that same challenge again – and the question is: how do we overcome that sense of stale familiarity? How do we learn to listen in a fresh way to an ancient story? How can we position ourselves to allow the beauty of Christmas to once again surprise and amaze us?
Well, perhaps the best place to begin is to critically reflect on the way we respond to the historical fact of Christmas, in other words, the actual birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we should bravely look inward and ask ourselves what our response to Christmas truly is… and perhaps then we should compare it to the response of those who were present at that first and wonderful Christmas.
Now I won’t presume to know what your response to Christmas is, I cannot look into your heart and nor can you into mine. However, we do have the incredible privilege of considering the testimony of God’s Word and, when we do so carefully, we are able to look into the scenes of the story and then notice the response of those who were present at the birth we celebrate today. Presumably, once we know how that original audience responded, we can ask ourselves bravely whether our response is the same as theirs – as it should be.
So this is exactly what we’ll do this morning. We’re going to spend some time reflecting on the “three-fold response to Christmas” that we see presented for us in our earlier Gospel reading and ask ourselves at each point whether or not this too is our response to Christmas.
Now you may be wondering why I refer to a three-fold response to Christmas… Well, when we read this text from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel carefully, one of the things we notice is that there are three different responses made by three characters, or groups of characters, in the story. And when we are able to hold these three different responses together as one three-fold response, and cultivate this in our own lives, we will find ourselves in a place where we would be able to hear again the Christmas story with a fresh sense of wonder and amazement.
The first response is precisely that of wonder and amazement, and this response we see in those who had gathered around and witnessed this miracle; the second response is that of pondering and treasuring, and this response we will see in Mary as she struggled to make sense of it all; and the third response is that of praising and glorifying God, which we will see in the shepherds as they return to their pastures having seen all that they heard from the angels to be true.