THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
The Spirit of Christmas. We hear a lot about the Spirit of Christmas this time of year. Do you ever find yourself sitting down exhausted at this time of year and asking yourself, "Do I have the Christmas Spirit?" That can be a tough question! Perhaps it would be better to ask first: what exactly is the Spirit of Christmas, anyway?
The popular Charles Dickens story "The Christmas Carol" gives an answer to the question of Christmas spirit. And it arrives there through three visits by literally spirits, the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Ebenezer Scrooge is visited throughout Christmas Eve night by these Spirits, and he's basically scared silly into this Christmas morning vow: "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me." And we go on to see an Ebenezer Scrooge who has changed from a bitter, old miser to a caring model of generosity.
There's a lot to be said for Charles Dickens' picture of the Christmas Spirit. I think he's on the right track when he shows us a changed person such as Ebenezer Scrooge, who in one night goes from being a "scrooge" to being more like Mother Theresa. I believe that is the change that the Gospel seeks to make in each of us, that we be transformed into caring models of generosity.
And yet to find the ultimate answer to the nature of the Christmas Spirit, I think we need to go a bit deeper than Charles Dickens. We can take our own journey with the Christmas Spirits of Past, Present, and Future. For us, of course, the Spirit of Christmas Past takes us back all the way to that first Christmas. We have already read the story from St. Luke's gospel; we've already been visited with a heavenly chorus of praise in our choir's and in our own singing. But I think there is something about these two stories -- Charles Dickens's story and St. Luke's story -- that we need to see. I'm talking about the role of fear in these two stories. Both stories give us some unsavory characters. Ebenezer Scrooge is so famous that his name has entered into our language as a word describing any mean, nasty, stingy person. The unsavory characters in St. Luke's story may not be as obvious to us. The shepherds. We have to shake free of some of our Christmas piety. This is not some nice little pastoral scene. Shepherds in the first century represented something like bikers, socially. They were the unwashed, unscrupulous. People locked their doors when they came into town.
But now what role does fear play with the unsavory characters in these stories? In Dickens's story, Scrooge is scared silly by the three specters, the three ghostly spirits of Christmas, who frighten him into a fortunate transformation. Especially the speechless Spirit of Christmas Future leaves Scrooge shaking in his boots before his own tombstone. It's no wonder he is moved to change. Moved by fear.
But what about those unsavory characters in Luke's story, the shepherds? Luke tells us (Luke 2:9): "Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified." But what does this heavenly messenger immediately say to the shepherds? This is the key to the difference between these two stories. In one a haunting, voiceless specter points to a gravestone; in the other a holy angel says, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Rather than a grave marker designed to frighten, this angel says "Do not be afraid!" and brings Good News for all people. Rather than a death-threat, this angel brings an invitation, an invitation to witness the beginning of New Life. And these shepherds accept the invitation, not only going to witness this child for themselves, but to also spread the Good News to others, telling others the amazing story of how God made known these wonderful things to them, of all people. Charles Dickens tells us a story of an unsavory person transformed by intimidation; St. Luke tells us the story of unsavory characters transformed by invitation. The Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of that First Christmas night, was an invitation to New Life, not an intimidation by the specter of death.
Second, let's journey with the Spirit of Christmas Present. What characterizes the spirit of our Christmas celebrations today? Is it the Spirit which moved those shepherds to make a trip to the manger? Or is it the spirit that has moved us to make all those trips to the mall? Manger or mall?
Let's take a clue from Mary. In a story that comes just before the Christmas story, St. Luke tells us about the pregnant Mary going to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, and she erupts into song, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." What spirit is it that has shaped Mary in preparation for that first Christmas? Answer: the Spirit of Holy Scripture. For the song that follows is an eruption of all the themes from Scripture. What is the corollary for that in our world? Today, what would we erupt with? Would we erupt with something formed from the spirit of Scripture like Mary's song? Or would we irrupt with some TV commercial? What is the spirit that forms us?
I must confess that one of the prominent images for me this holiday season has been that TV commercial where a couple is stranded on a frozen wasteland in the middle of nowhere. They are standing in front of their car with the hood up and steam rising from an apparently torn radiator hose. The wife says, "Hey, I know, I can call for help on the new cell phone you bought me for Christmas." And she pulls out of her bag and opens up her new...waffle iron! "Oh yea," she says, "you got me this nice waffle iron instead of a cell phone. Wait, I know, I can make smoke signals with this lovely new blanket you bought me." And she fans the radiator steam with her blanket.
Have you seen that commercial? It makes me laugh. Behind the humor, though, subtly lies something else, of course. This ad wants to give me the spirit of wanting to buy their cell phone and to move me to make that trip to the mall. And, despite the humor, it presents me with a dangerous situation, that of being stranded in the winter cold. So, even though I laugh, there might also be sparked a touch a fear underneath it. If I haven't already bought my loved one a new cell phone, this commercial is basically trying to frighten me into getting one, isn't it? What would happen if your loved one were stranded someday without a cell phone? You better run out to the mall and get her one for Christmas! And so, what may be presented more as a friendly invitation to buy their product may in actuality be planned as an intimidation of sorts.
I ask again: What is the Spirit of Christmas Present that has formed us and brought us here tonight? Is it the Spirit which moved those shepherds to make a trip to the manger? Or is it the spirit that has moved us to make all those trips to the mall? Manger or mall? What shapes and forms us? Is it Scripture like Mary? Or is it the barrage of TV commercials, the many pressures we face in this consumerist age we live in? Which Spirit shapes us? Is it the Christmas Spirit?
Our answers come with the Spirit of Christmas Future. What was Mary's future on that first Christmas? Eventually, there would be the horror of that tiny baby in her arms all grown up and hanging on a cross. But three days later, early in the morning she would be going to once more hold her son's body and anoint it with burial spices. Only to find the stone rolled away from the tomb and an empty grave! Like the shepherds on that first Christmas, she was terrified. But, once again, there was an angel to say, "Do not be afraid!" There was a heavenly messenger to once again announce the Good News and to invite her into a future of everlasting new life. That is the miraculous spirit of not only Mary's Christmas Future but all of our Christmas Futures, as well. For the tiny child grew up to be the one who would conquer death. He would be the one to rise from the dead and invite us to be transformed into new life. He was not some horrible specter who came to intimidate us or frighten us into shaping up, but he was the Son sent from God to lovingly offer us forgiveness and to invite us to be changed by the Holy Spirit of his life. His is the Spirit of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
O.K., so we've answered the question about what is the Christmas Spirit. The Spirit of our Lord who has conquered death--in other words, the Easter Spirit!--is also the true Christmas Spirit. But there's still that original question: do we have the Christmas Spirit? The answer to that is a resounding, "Yes! We do have the Christmas Spirit! It was promised to each of us at our baptisms! And I'd like to move down here to the font with this Christmas evergreen to sprinkle you all with a reminder of that fact. Years ago, a pastor sprinkled you clean with those words of God's loving forgiveness, and he or she marked the cross on your foreheads and sealed you with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of our Lord's Resurrection which is also the true Christmas Spirit. It is a Spirit which doesn't seek to frighten or intimidate us. Rather, it says to us, "Do not be afraid," and it invites us to live a new life. Shaped and formed by Scripture and worship and prayer and serving together in this place, we have the opportunity to be changed people. We are called to be models of generosity in a world that sometimes seems filled with Scrooges. Baptized into our Lord's grace, this is a gift truly given to us--to most of us as little babies. It's a gift of the Spirit that, like any gift, can be squandered, misused, or even ignored. But it is a gift given nonetheless. It is the gift of a new and everlasting life of responding to God's grace by sharing that grace with others. Let us embrace the gift so that 'it may always be said of us,' as it was of Scrooge, 'that he or she knew how to keep Christmas well, if anyone alive possessed the knowledge. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, 'God bless Us, Every One!'"
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 24, 1997
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