Happy New Year! When we come to the beginning of a new year, I always get excited. Like opening a gift, I enter a new year with anticipation and hope, not knowing what the year has in store, but knowing that it will be an adventure! This year will be no different. For example, we have a glimpse of what 2017 will hold for our families, community, and nation. God willing, we will adapt well to the minor changes that occur. Some significant changes will also occur. Whether it is the presidential inauguration or the meeting of the General Assembly of our denomination, we know changes will result.
Change is a difficult thing, even for the most tested of individuals. Patterns, routines and traditions often help us to get through the most questionable of times. However, as Christians, when we merely rely on patterns, routines, and traditions, we stop being open to seeing the way in which God is active in this world and in our lives.
When I think of traditions and customs, I often think of the story of a woman I once knew. Every year on Christmas, her family had a roast. She prepared the roast as her mother always had, cutting off the ends of the roast and baking the roast for hours. One Christmas, as the mother was watching, she asked her daughter,” Why are you cutting off the ends of the roast? That will dry out your roast.”
The daughter replied, “I do that because it is what you always did.”
The mother laughed and said, “I had to cut off the ends because I never had a pan big enough for the whole roast.”
It is interesting to look at why and how we do things. When we are children, the first way we learn is by observation and mimicry. As we get older, we learn by experimentation. When we stop learning and growing, we fall into the routines which are always comfortable, but never challenging. When we come to the point in our lives when we stop questioning, we begin to fall into the dangerous pattern that lets us merely exist.
Now, I am not asserting, as the Gnostics did, that knowledge will increase your faith, or that you may become God-like or even a God. As we grow in our understanding of how and why this world works the way it does, we open ourselves to seeing God’s work in ways which we never thought we would. One of the great struggles of our time for many people is seeing how God is active and present in our world, but I find when I step back and ask the question, “Why?”, I often see that God is very much part of everything that is going on.
We open ourselves to the life of hope. Our knowledge and understanding of our world help us to better understand God and our lives. As we enter this New Year, keeping our minds and hearts open to being transformed by God through seeking knowledge and asking why will be increasingly important. As a church, we will be entering into a new time of growth. But we will always need to be asking where God is calling. That will help us determine which ministries that we support are vital and will help us to grow into the future, and which are no longer vital and can be allowed to go.
For most people, we know that Christmas is a special time of year. Over the next week, we will hear the Christmas story in many ways in services on Wednesday night, two on Christmas Eve and a special Christmas Day service!
Christmas is a unique holiday in the Christian calendar. If you were to ask people outside the faith what is the most important holiday for Christians, their answer would most likely be Christmas. The truth is, as “major” holidays go, Christmas was an afterthought. The actual birth of Christ was understood as important to the extent of recognizing the incarnation, but it was not a high holy day.
Christmas became so central to the church because it is the benefactor of really good marketing and a nice little trick that came from the earliest Christians. Christianity was very different than other religions at the time, because blood and purity were not as important as faith and commitment. This meant that it was very common for the new tradition to adopt celebrations and traditions that were not its own. Granted, this is different than Pentecost and Easter, both of which were continued from the Jewish community by the early Christians, who saw themselves as a sect of Judaism. Christmas and some of the other holidays really are far more connected to the pagan holidays than anything else.
Truth be told, most people will place the actual “historical” birth of Christ somewhere between late spring and early summer. The first time Christmas entered a Christian calendar was around the 3rd century A.D. Christendom was embroiled in controversy as to the divinity and incarnation of Christ. This escalation is very apparent in the discussions of the council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed, which was written in 325 A.D. and revised in 381 A.D. The creed affirmed that “the divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.” But it was going to take more to get people to understand and accept this theology.
It was Clement of Alexandria who first suggested Christmas as a holiday and set the date to be May 20. Granted, I find that to be an interesting date, especially when you think of its proximity to Easter and Pentecost. But it makes sense¾Christmas was to be both a celebration and education. Locating it within the proximity of Easter and Pentecost allowed it to follow a theology that placed Christ in the most divine location. Being merely a lesson on the incarnate reality of Christ, the fanfare and focus were just not that important. And many did not celebrate it with much consistency. It would take another century and a half for it to become established as a consistent holy day.
It was not until the late 4th century, when the church was 400+ years old, that Christmas would be consistently celebrated. Until that time, the Epiphany (January 6) was the major holiday. I will write more on this topic in a couple weeks, but Epiphany formally represents the “birth” of Christ, the incarnation of Christ (when God’s spirit enters Christ at the baptism), as well as the story of the witness of the Magi and their choice not to report back to King Herod.
How Christmas moved from May 20 to December 25 is one of the mysteries of the early church, but the first record of its observance on December 25 is in the year 336. Most historians and theologians have determined that the day was picked because of the Roman pagan holiday of Sol Invictus, honoring the sun god. But this also makes sense. It is located at the winter solstice, when days are turning longer, which represented light and hope. The celebration of the incarnate Christ was perfect there.
Contrary to modern tradition, as a holy day Christmas is still not a major one. But it is a special day that deserves a celebration. Unfortunately, though, many people will force it to be something much bigger than it is. And that is the trap! There is a reason why it is so late in being canonized. That is because more important to both the church and faith are the days of Easter and Pentecost, which teach us forgiveness and call us to action. But it is good to celebrate Christmas, because it reminds us that God did give us a gift in the incarnation of Christ.
It is interesting when you start to analyze the roles people take in the Bible. For such a patriarchal society, men do not fare well. This is especially seen in the gospels. On the surface, the gospel, and especially the birth narrative, are about how God became man. But more than that, the story about the birth of Christ is a statement on power, politics, and social order. So it is not surprising that over and over, we see women and outcasts playing significant roles with the journey of Christ.
Both Matthew and Luke start their gospel journey in the most logical of places, giving an answer to the question of how Christ came into this world, how the Word became flesh, or to use the theological term, “the incarnation.” While Mark does not address the incarnation at all, John goes into a wholly mystical direction, giving a creation narrative in its place¾but that is a different letter! One of the great issues of importance in the birth narrative for Matthew and Luke is that it establishes a witness to a human birth. This firmly expresses an understanding of the incarnate Christ.
As I said before, establishing the incarnate nature of Christ is important, but not the only aspect of importance. There is the role of Mary and Joseph in the whole story. I must say, we walk down some dangerous and much debated issues when we come to Mary. From debates on the virgin birth to claims of her divinity, I personally think all that takes away from the real power that is going on in the story.
Mary is the mother of Jesus, and there must be something super special about that, but making Mary divine misses her role. The most important thing is that she was the first human to unconditionally accept Christ. While abortion was not something often pursued at the time, both infanticide and child abandonment were common, and reading into the text as Mary “explores her options,” we can see in the background the reality of those choices. But Mary is helped by an angel who gives her an understanding of what her call would be, and Mary decides to accept this call. This makes her, as unlikely as it seems for a young girl, to be the first to make the powerful witness to Christ.
And then we have Joseph. Joseph is often overlooked because he doesn’t have much of a role. Most interpretations of the biblical narrative, as well as tradition, would say that he is not the biological father. So many discount the importance of what he did for the birth narrative. Unfortunately, like making Mary divine and, thus, removing the struggle to accept what is happening to her, discounting Joseph does the same. Like Mary, Joseph must make a choice to accept the situation. Like Mary, he does so after weighing his options. And like Mary, it is an angel that ultimately helps him to accept Christ. But Joseph needs to take one more step: knowing that Christ is not his offspring, he has to adopt and raise him as his own. We know he does this through Jesus’ profession and the very few stories of his childhood.
What I find interesting about this is that the birth narrative mirrors how we come to Christ. Mary represents all of the faithful today. Like the Jews who are the chosen people, Mary was born into her role. She was chosen by God for a special relationship, and she had to make a choice about whether to accept her place or to reject it. Granted, being human, it took divine intervention to help Mary make the right choice, but she did.
Joseph, on the other hand, represents the those who are new to faith and those who are called not to be out front, but to walk alongside the leaders in faith. Joseph was not the chosen one, but for Jesus to thrive in this world, he had to accept him as his own. This is something that all people who come to faith must do! Very few of us are ever in the spot of Mary, where we are the chosen. But often we are called to walk alongside those who have been called to do miraculous things. To be honest, that is just as important, if not more, because it is those people who enable the chosen to thrive.
Together, Mary and Joseph were a couple charged with that very important part of Jesus’ life. While it is not something that is written about, it is also something that does not need to be written about! We know what it means to raise a child, and we know how hard it can be. The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the reason Christ was able to be and do what he needed to do is that two simple people made a choice to accept and love him. And with that the world was changed. This raises the question: what you would do?
This Sunday in the tradition of the church is referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice,” and the name is tied to the passage from Philippians 4:4 which reads, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice …” Like its counterpart in Lent, Laetare Sunday, it is a break from the discipline of the season and a nod to the inclusivity of the message of Christ. The focus is less on outward activities of sharing hope, seeking peace, and loving others, and more on inward joy.
Unfortunately, “joy” is a term that has become so overused that it has lost some of the distinct meaning that differentiates it from other words such as happiness or contentment. From a theological standpoint, when we talk about joy, we are talking about something that is not temporal.
Unlike a generic happy situation, joy points to something much deeper. As Donald McKim puts it in his dictionary, it is “a sense of extreme happiness and well-being related in Scripture to knowing God and God’s actions of love (Neh 12:43; Isa 29:19), specifically in Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:13; 1 Pet. 1:8).” (McKim 2014)
Personally, I like the way that Henri Nouwen talks about joy. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his:
Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing¾sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death¾can take that love away.
So there is a choice that we make for ourselves, and it is not always an easy choice, because for so many of us, joy is elusive. So often the things of this world come in the way of our joy because we continue to put a temporal happiness before a deeper joy.
It reminds me of the community I grew up in and the story of a friend of mine. I grew up comfortably middle-class. My dad was fairly cheap, but honestly, we never went without anything. My friend’s family, though, was wealthy. They lived in a house three times the size of mine. Where I had to wear Toughskins, he always had the nicest jeans and shoes, and all kinds of clothes. He was the first to have the newest gaming system, and always put on a front that he was happy. The problem was that his happiness was a façade!
He was miserable. While he enjoyed the luxuries of his life, there was something deeper that he was missing. He was missing the deeper connection and a real sense of joy. I remember one time at a church retreat, he just let it all out. Luckily, we had a great youth pastor who used that occasion to teach a very important lesson, that “things may make us happy, but only God can bring us joy!”
We all changed that day. For me, it was something that would give me strength through all of the turmoil that would come into my life over the next few years with my medical issues. Through the most difficult of times, I recognized that my joy was different than my comfort and that the happiness that came to me through my faith could sustain me much more than any single thing in life.
This week, take some time to seek the joy in your life. Do you put your happiness in the things of this world, or do you put it in the hands of God?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen