A television interviewer was walking streets of Tokyo, where Christmas shopping is as big as it is here. The interviewer stopped one young woman, and asked, “What is the meaning of Christmas?”
Laughing, she responded, “I don’t know. Is that the day that Jesus died?”
The way she answered, I felt there was some truth in her answer.
But it’s a good question – what is this TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS?
What, exactly, is this TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS everyone has so energetically been learning? I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s the same meaning that Matthew and Luke had in mind when they wrote about the shepherds and wise men and angels and animals and the strange doings in Bethlehem of Judea.
No, the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS as proposed in our current age has something to do with these ideas:
1. It is more blessed to give than to receive
2. We should be nice to everybody
3. Having lots of stuff won’t make you happy, only loving relationships will make you truly rich and happy.
All these are admirable sentiments, but they are not unique to Christianity, and they are not even remotely close to what the writers of the Gospels wanted to tell us about the birth of Christ.
What many of us usually do is pick bits and pieces of the Biblical story to “proof text” and “prop up” these ideas. Let’s see: the wise men brought gifts so we should give, the angels sang something about “good will to all people” so we should love everybody, and King Herod was rich and miserable and Mary and Joseph were poor but proud, so there you go.
I’m sorry folks, but giving and niceness and a mild rejection of materialism are not the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS. That meaning is found in one little word that occurs in both of today’s readings. Isaiah and Matthew both refer to Emmanuel, God is with us.
That is the true meaning of Christmas. Emmanuel, God IS with us. Not God WAS with us, long ago and far away. Not God WILL be with us, pie in the sky, by and by. But present tense, here and now, in this time and in this place, Emmanuel, God IS with us. Not only God IS, but listen carefully, God is WITH us. Not God beyond us. Not God a way off there somewhere, remote and removed from our everyday lives. Sometimes we like to think we can keep God at arm’s length, we like to keep the holy tied up in the church, like a lovely Christmas present; nicely wrapped and tied with a bow, carefully stashed beneath the tree, but having nothing to do with our daily and ordinary lives. Many of us like to think that we have God and church and Christ neatly cordoned off into an inoffensive corner of our lives.
We may think we have kept God from interfering in the way we live our lives, but that won’t do. Emmanuel, God is with us, won’t allow it. Emmanuel refuses to stay in the corner, Emmanuel insists on messing around in our lives, Emmanuel is God WITH us.
Notice also that it is not God beneath us. Some people treat God and godly things as an interesting subject for observation and study. They’re charmed by the Christmas stories; they find it interesting how the church adopted the approximate date of the winter solstice as a date for Christ’s mass, the day when the SUN begins to return to life. The imagery is fascinating. And then, of course, there are all the parallels with the pagan mystery cults; and of course Handel’s Messiah is such a lovely piece of music. Christianity is so very deeply embedded in the very fabric of Western Civilization. But Emmanuel, God is with us, will not allow this. Emmanuel is not God beneath us, nor God beneath our microscope, as some sort of object for our curiosity or admiration. No, Emmanuel is God with us, God in our midst, God in our lives.
I must warn you to be careful how much you study godly things, for God is very sneaky, and in the midst of your study you may find yourself drawn into relationship with the one who is; for God is not beneath us, God is WITH us and works continuously to draw all things into the Divine Presence. God is not beyond us, God is not beneath us, and God is not between us.
There is far too much religious strife in this world, far too many people claiming that God is on their side and against the other. You only have to see news from Syria to get that. Emmanuel, God is WITH us, came to all people, not just the people like us, or the people we like. God is WITH us, not between us. Emmanuel brings us together, and does not push us apart. How much our world needs to hear that.
The TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS is this: in a mystery too deep for words, too profound for theologians, too irrational for philosophers, and too unproveable for scientists, God’s love dictated that God enter humanity and be with us, all of us, to share in our joy and sorrow, our triumphs and tragedies, our fears and our faith, our life and our death.
And so, the story goes, it happened one night, long ago, in the city of David, that a child was born whose name was Emmanuel, God is with us. And the Good News for today is that God is STILL with us, and will be with us forever and ever.