“What does Christmas mean to you?”

popeThe late Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, a monk of the Ampleforth Abbey, said that he was at a Peace Rally in Trafalgar Square one year right before Christmas.   He was on the platform as one of the dignitaries, and had offered a prayer.  When it was all over and he was making his way through the crowd to his car, he was approached by a reporter who asked him, “What does Christmas mean to you?”   The question caught him off guard.   He was someone who was accustomed to being in the public eye, and so he always had a few remarks carefully prepared by his staff for media sound bites that would be relevant to the immediate event.  Had they asked him about peace, he was ready to go with something wise and eminently quotable to say.  But they asked him about Christmas instead, and he had to react right then and there on the spot, saying the very first thing that came into his head.

“The great and awesome God became man for me, that’s what Christmas means to me” is what he said, and with that, the reporter smiled, nodded his head, said “thank-you” and was off.  Apparently it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear from the Cardinal, but Basil Hume said that after he had gone fifteen yards are so from the point of that encounter, that he stopped dead in his tracks as he thought about what he’d said.

“Here was a familiar truth which I had known my whole life,” he explained, “but at that moment the simple truth that God had become man seemed to me quite staggering, and I realized that I was looking at this familiar truth in a new way.”

And then he added –

It is so easy to celebrate Christmas and miss the main point, or to become so familiar with the Christian teaching about it that it fails to make its impact. …Christmas is a feast at which we celebrate God’s entry into our world as man. He entered into our world in order to enter into our lives.

Now, the thought of this isn’t necessarily comforting. You’ve no doubt heard the old “good news/bad news” joke — the “good news” is that Christ is coming back, the “bad news” is that He is really mad at you!  Before dismissing the thought, remember that virtually every part of the Christmas story that Luke tells begins with angels telling human beings not to be afraid. Our spiritual mothers and fathers, the Jews, with their heightened sense of right and wrong got it. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Just to say that God shows up in our world and in our lives – what Basil Hume called the “Christmas truth” – doesn’t tell us whether this is good news or bad news for us.  What determines that is the nature of the God who shows up.  I once heard the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer say that if God was more like Attila the Hun than Jesus the Christ, then what could we do about it?  So, here’s the good news of Christmas — the God who shows up in our world and who makes His way into our lives is a God who is love.  And “this is why I have come to treasure each Christmas” Cardinal Hume wrote.

babyI have come to realize more intensely that the birth of Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to get answered. If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself to the Christmas crib and look at the image of the Christ child lying in the manger.

“Emmanuel” – “God with us” – that’s what the Christmas angel told Joseph the baby miraculously conceived in Mary would be called. God gets focused for us in Jesus Christ.  Again, something Cardinal Archbishop Basil Hume wrote proves helpful.

To imagine that we still cannot “put a face” to God, that we are still in the dark about the reality of divine love and compassion, is to ignore perhaps the blindingly obvious, and it is to fail to linger long enough on the features and the personality of Jesus Christ.

poemsChristmas is about how God shows up in our world and in our lives, and what we learn from that encounter is that God is love. As Christina Rosetti, my favorite English devotional poet, put it –

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

We used to sing a chorus when I was a kid in youth group that said – “Love, love, love, love; the Gospel in a word is love, love thy neighbor as your brother, God is love.” And I have always thought this to be a pretty good summary of Biblical Christianity.  Jesus said that our love for each other would be how the world would know that we are His disciples (John 13:35).  “See how they love one another,” was what people said about the very first Christians.

But in the New Testament, before something gets laid on us as was a moral or spiritual obligation, it first gets offered to us freely as a gift, and this is where Christian Rossetti’s poem comes into play.   “We love,” the Apostle John explained in his first letter, “because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).  And how we know that He “first loved us” is because He came to us in Jesus Christ, born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love is the fundamental truth about the God who is there, and how we know this to be true is Jesus Christ – it is the fact established by His birth, life, death and resurrection. The God who shows up in Christ and who makes His way into our world and lives is a God who loves us.  It is the truth of Christmas that “the great and awesome God became man” for you, and for me, and for all.  That’s the Gospel truth that strengthens us in life and that sustains us in death, so don’t miss this staggering truth in the familiarity of the season and in the routine of its celebrations.

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.

Merry Christmas!

    DBS +


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