Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Real "War on Christmas"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2005, 11:00PM

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Psalm 96: 1-4, 11-12
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2: 1-20

The Real “War on Christmas"

After all these centuries, the story has lost none of its power. Mary and Joseph desperately searching for shelter. Placing the newborn baby Jesus in a manger – the Son of God in a feeding trough for animals. The angels appearing to the shepherds with their wondrous message of good news. The young mother Mary – probably just thirteen or fourteen years old – pondering in her heart all that she has seen and heard. It is a rich, deeply moving story and tonight all around the world people are once again retelling and rehearing it in countless languages and places. But, I think tonight, maybe more than ever, we need to ask a difficult question – Yes, it’s Christmas, but so what? What difference does Christmas make for us here in Jersey City at the end of 2005? Really, what difference does it make for any of us that Jesus was born? So what?

What difference does Jesus’ birth make, especially as we consider our world in 2005 – I don’t need to remind you that for the world this has been in many ways a terrible year – beginning just after Christmas last year when the horrific tsunami struck Asia killing thousands upon thousands of people. What difference does Christmas make in the face of suffering such as that, or for the victims of hurricanes and earthquakes? What difference does Christmas make for those who suffer because of evil human acts? Our own little parish has faced much sadness and suffering this year, with members of our St. Paul’s family no longer able to be with us this Christmas. Some have died, others are unwell. Some have anxiously faced surgery or waited for test results. In the midst of all this suffering and anxiety – here and around the world - what difference does Christmas make? It’s Christmas – so what?

Well, it certainly seems like a lot of people care a great deal about Christmas. During a time when American men and women are bravely sacrificing their lives fighting a dangerous and difficult war, the media, especially certain cable news networks and personalities, have been pouring out reports and commentary on the so-called “war on Christmas” that apparently is taking place across our country. In a recent five-day period, one cable news network broadcast fifty-eight stories about this attack on Christmas – a battle which seems to be taking place mostly in America’s stores where cashiers and sales clerks have been criticized for wishing people “Happy Holidays” rather than saying “Merry Christmas.” One well-known commentator angrily declared, “I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday!” And, “I’m going to use all the power I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that!” He went on, “There is no reason on earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace and love together! And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me!” Um, merry Christmas?

We may or may not agree with this kind of talk, but I actually do believe there is a kind of war on Christmas going on today, but it’s a war that has nothing to do with what some in the media are yelling and screaming about. It’s a war that has nothing to do with saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” No, instead it’s a kind of war that goes on inside our own hearts. And if we can understand this internal war – a war that we’ll never see covered on TV – we may be able to answer this Christmas question: so what?

A 17th Century mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal said that there is in every person a God-shaped void that only God can fill. That rings true to me – that in each of us there is a space, an emptiness that hungers for God – a God shaped void that only God can fill. But, even though only God can heal that emptiness we do a pretty good job of looking for other ways to fill that void – and there are lots of people out there who are more than willing to help us.

You name it, we try it. Some use alcohol or drugs to fill that emptiness. Others turn to food. Or sex. Or we try to make the people in our lives fill this emptiness. Those of us who have the means – and even some of us who don’t - turn to buying stuff – lots and lots of stuff. If I only have – fill in the blank – then I’ll truly be happy. And, of course, manufacturers, stores and advertisers are more than willing to try to convince us that these things will truly make us happy. That these things will fill the void we feel in our lives. But, it’s not true – and on some level we know it’s not true, and yet many of us fall for it each and every time, year in and year out. Now don’t get me wrong, most of this stuff is perfectly fine and enjoyable – believe me, my family will tell you I like Christmas presents at least as much as anybody else, but none of these things that we buy or unwrap will make us truly happy if we haven’t filled that God-shaped void in our hearts. And hoping that stuff is going to feed us spiritually ultimately can lead us to self-destruction.

And, that’s the real war on Christmas – because what is Christmas, really? What is the “good news of great joy” that the angels announce to the startled shepherds in the field? The good news is that God has come to fill that God-shaped void inside of us. God has heard our cries – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – and God has come into the world in Jesus. In Jesus, God and humanity – God and us - meet in a new, decisive, and transforming way. In Jesus God says “This is who I am.” And in Jesus God also says to us, “This is who you really are – this is what I dream you will be. This is what humanity will be.” That’s the “so what” of Christmas – our God-shaped void is filled by Jesus. We are saved.

Actually, not quite. It turns out the Christian message is really an invitation. In Jesus, God shows us the way to be what we were created to be. In Jesus, God shows us what life with God is like. But, it’s still only an invitation – we are free, so it’s up to us to respond. We need to open our hearts, put our faith in God, to live like Jesus – to allow God to fill that void that only God can fill.

And that’s the hard part. And that’s why even we Christians who should know better – and do know better - still try to fill that God-shaped void other ways like by misusing stuff rather than turning to God. In a way, it’s easier isn’t it to just go to down to the Newport Mall, or even all the way out to Short Hills, and search for joy and happiness? It’s easier, except of course, it doesn’t really work.

In Jesus, God reveals both who God is and who we really are. And so as we read the whole Gospel story we have a really clear sense of what God is calling us to, what God wants us to be. To be like Jesus, we are called to offer loving service to others. We are called to teach and to heal. We are called to condemn sin, especially hypocrisy. We are called to preach repentance and reconciliation. We are called to love – especially people we don’t particularly like and even those who are our enemies. To choose life, not death. To follow Jesus is not to sit around waiting for heaven, but to transform life here on earth – and if Christmas teaches us anything it is that God values life on earth, our here and now human life very, very much.

All this is all very hard for us to do, but we know that the Lord is with us – holding us up, praying with us, leading us on. And maybe most importantly, the Lord is suffering along with us. After all, to be Christian is certainly to believe in a suffering God.

One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty - it never pretends that any of this is easy. It was not easy for Mary to accept the amazing news the angel told her – “How can this be?” she asked. It was not easy for Joseph to accept what God called him to be and to do – to stand by Mary and to be father to this child. It was not easy for Jesus to preach repentance and love, to resist temptation, and to be abandoned and rejected. And it is not easy for God – forever reaching out, desiring relationship with humanity, and over and over being abandoned and rejected. And, of course, the ultimate rejection took place on the cross. Yet, God forever seeks us and so is able to transform what seems to be a crushing defeat into a spectacular victory. The resurrected Jesus reveals our own future – if we accept the Christmas invitation and allow God fill that God-shaped void in our hearts.

So, tonight let’s call a truce in the real war on Christmas. In faith, let us open our hearts to God. Like Mary, let us ponder in our hearts all that God has done in our lives. Like Joseph, let us have the courage to put our faith in God, even if, especially if, we are frightened or confused. Like the shepherds, let us look with awe and wonder at the miracle of Jesus – the Word of God – made flesh in the world. Like the angels let us boldly proclaim “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”

And on this holy night and always let us be like Jesus – Jesus who makes all the difference for us and for the world. Jesus who teaches and heals. Jesus who loves and sacrifices. Jesus who is present right now in our community here in Jersey City, right here at St. Paul’s and here in a special way in the meal of bread and wine we will share. Jesus who reveals both who God is and who we truly are meant to be. Now, that’s something to celebrate! Merry Christmas!