Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas, the winter solstice, and redemption

Merry Christmas! What a wonderful season, where we celebrate the birth of Jesus, time with family, and the spirit of giving. I am home from another memorable Christmas Eve, including a candlelight service where I experienced anew a sense of awe that the God of creation entered the world as a baby. And then time with family as we exchanged gifts and felt the joy of seeing how we made someone we love happy. Tomorrow? More worship time and a big family dinner. Good times!

It is a wonderful time, but also a time of tension for those of us who endeavor to follow Jesus. We want to keep the main thing the main thing - we want to keep the birth of Christ at the center of our celebration.  But it's not easy, is it?

As I was reflecting on this today, I thought about the origin of the Christmas season. We did not pick this time of year to celebrate Jesus' birth because we know when he was born. We don't. (In fact, it's more likely that shepherds would have been "abiding in the fields" in the spring.) It is primarily because Christians living in a pagan society wanted something sacred to celebrate while their peers were celebrating the winter solstice, one of the biggest pagan holidays around. The secular world around them had this huge party because it was the longest night of the year and now days would start getting longer again. Probably included a lot of lights and even the giving of gifts.  So instead of just refusing to celebrate, Christians decided that this was a wonderful to time celebrate the coming of the Light of the world. A wonderful idea.

So what does thins mean for us? First, I think we fret a little too much about society "losing the true meaning of Christmas". Why do I say that? Because I don't think they ever really had it. It's only those of us serious about following Jesus that have ever seen that as the primary reason. And that's because we are taking something that the world created, and through Christ we have redeemed it.

Yes, that's it! And it makes me marvel at the wonder of the Incarnation even more. In Jesus, God entered the world to redeem it. To bring life where there was death. To bring light where there was darkness. To bring forgiveness where there was revenge. To bring love and compassion where there was selfishness. In the person of that little child, God began his plan to redeem a fallen world. A plan that culminated with a cross and an empty tomb.

In fact, where Jesus appears, he brings a "Midas touch" of redemption. And so do his followers if we are living in fellowship with him.

And so it should not surprise us that he has redeemed a pagan holiday as well. Yes, there is too much commercialism. Yes, there is a danger of children (ok, adults too) getting selfish and thinking only about what they want for Christmas. Yes, there is probably too much partying, to the point of debauchery - both in drink and in overeating.

But there is also a warming emphasis on family. There is a spirit of giving, not only to the ones we love but to the poor and oppressed. And, for those of us who know Jesus and base our lives on following him, there is a wonderful celebration of the mystery that God could take on flesh.

And that, to me, is the definition of redemption. I don't think Christmas is a naturally religious holiday that has been corrupted by too much worldliness. I think it is a naturally worldly holiday that we have redeemed  by celebrating the birth of the Messiah. Just as we are naturally sinful people that have been redeemed by the presence of that Messiah in our lives.

And so I don't think I'm going to let myself get discouraged by all the trappings of commercialism. Instead, I will rejoice as I celebrate the holy birth. God becoming one of redeem me, to redeem the world, and yes, to redeem Christmas itself.

Merry Christmas!

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