Scripture: Luke 2:1-8 and Matthew 2:1-12
When it comes to all of the Christmas preparations, Abigail and I have things fairly divided out. I carry all of the totes up and down the stairs, she does most of the unpacking and decorating out of those totes. I tend to end up doing most of the wrapping, which is odd because I am mostly terrible at it. One would think that after thirteen years of this, I would have figured it out but that is not the case. The reason why I end up doing it, is because of all the decorating, pomp, and circumstance that surrounds how we celebrate the Christmas season presents under the tree is my favorite. This goes back to when I was much younger. I loved it when wrapped presents would show up under the tree. I loved finding which ones were mine, evaluating the size of the box and guessing just what was inside. It was always exciting come Christmas Eve to find out if I was right. My siblings were the same way, so it was common in December to find the three of us huddled under the Christmas tree sharing our theories. There was one year though, my dad tried to switch this up. Instead of putting our names on the packages, he put codenames so we did not know what belonged to who. We had gotten really good at figuring things out, so he was trying to add some mystery back into the equation. My siblings and I did not like this, and we conspired together. We chose to ignore the Christmas tree all together, paying no attention to it, or what was under it. My parents seeing their plan kind of backfired and did not get the impact they were going for, switched the labels eventually.
This memory is a reminder for me just how powerful of a sway tradition has on us. The reason my siblings and I resisted the change my parents introduced is because it messed with our tradition. We feel very comfortable in the midst of tradition. We like knowing that something is going to be the same way year after year. This is especially true when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Many of us have a multitude of traditions that surround the way we celebrate Christmas. Some of these are so engrained that we do not recognize them as traditions. For instance many people have rituals of how they decorate for Christmas. The tree goes up the same time each year, the nativity scene goes on the same shelf each year, and we sing Silent Night every Christmas Eve. We all have Christmas traditions, and they are beloved traditions. There is nothing wrong with having traditions, and there is nothing wrong with finding joy in those traditions. However, those traditions can get in the way of truly celebrating Christmas. Often the stress, the hustle and bustle, the tiredness that we so often feel during this time is caused by us running around with too much to do AND still trying to fit in all of our traditions as well. Perhaps you have experienced the frustration that comes from trying to have an old fashioned, traditional Christmas in a modern world. As we hear the familiar Christmas scriptures though I am struck by an irony. Today for nearly all of us Christmas is steeped in tradition. Yet, the first Christmas was anything but traditional. For everyone it was an extremely out of the ordinary, one of a kind experience. The Christmas experience was something that could not be repeated, it was a different kind of day. This is a reminder to us, that what we need is a different kind of Christmas.
For Mary and Joseph it was certainly a different experience. The drama of an unexpected pregnancy, of angelic visits, of traveling to Bethlehem, of giving birth in a place where animals normally dwell is not what either of them were expecting. Their journey to that point was not something that they had really planned for. It was a different night for the shepherds as well. It started off as just another night, another standard day of doing their job. For those shepherds out in the fields it was a once in a lifetime kind of night. Do you think years later, people believed them when the shepherds told their stories about the host of angels? They probably talked about it for decades to anyone who would listen. It was on that night for those shepherds that a new reality became real for them. They realized perhaps for the first time that God is truly with them. The Magi also did not find what they were expecting. They had followed their knowledge of prophecy and star charts to find a foretold king of the Jews. However, the king was not in Jerusalem as they expected. They followed the star to an unassuming hose in the unassuming town of Bethlehem. Traditions are all about finding comfort in the expected, but on that first Christmas day everything was unexpected.
What is most notable in this story is what happens next. Matthew 2:12 records about the Magi, “And having been warned in a dram not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by a different route.” The shepherds also returned differently in Luke 2:20, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen.” They may have returned by the same route, but they did so in a dramatically different fashion. We did not read this portion of the scripture, but Mary eventually turns to Nazareth after giving birth in Bethlehem. However, they returned by a much different road after a lengthy detour in Egypt. In all three instances, the difference in the return journey was a result of listening to God. The Magi and Mary and Joseph were warned through angelic dreams to go, and they were faithful to following God’s leadings. The shepherds had seen the wonders of God and they could not be quiet about it. When it comes to celebrating Christmas, it is our tendency to seek and create tradition. We want to do the same thing every year, yet here in the Christmas scriptures is this undeniable concept of going by a different route. It is not only going by a different route, but it is going that way after encountering the divine. Advent, Christmas, all of this is all about celebrating that God is now with us, that the Christ has come. Christmas is a recognition that we can encounter the divine. I have to wonder though, do we get so caught up in doing things the way we have always done them, and that we miss the different route?
I was reminded of how true this is a few days ago when talking with my son Connor. At the age of seven he is really beginning to understand and process what Christmas is all about. Honestly, he is getting some confusing and conflicting messages. On one side he sees Christmas being presented as a collection of candy canes, snowmen, gingerbread, and presents. On the other side he is getting the message that Christmas is all about celebrating God’s love and how that love was given to us in the form of Baby Jesus. One of the ways that he is going about processing this is that he asks the same question over again to make sure the answers do not change. So even though we have talked about it before, a couple of days ago he asked, “Why do we give people Christmas presents?”
I told him, “because it is Jesus’ birthday, and God gave us Jesus as the greatest gift of all because God loves us. So we give presents to the people we love.” He then knowingly replied, “It is all about love.” When I told him that he was right, Connor then added, “Every day that we love people is like Christmas.” That boy for all of his energy and silliness may be wise beyond his years.
Every day we love people is like Christmas. You know one of our ugliest Christmas traditions is that we put it all away. Just like we have a traditional time to set the tree up, we have a traditional time to tear it all down. With very little pomp and circumstance everything goes back in boxes, back in basements, and back in attics. We move on and we wait until the day after Thanksgiving to get back in the Christmas spirit, but what if we took a different route. What if every day we made the intentional choice to intentionally love someone. What if we took the radically different route, and we chose to love someone we normally would not love. Someone who does not look like us or think like us or behave like us. If we did that then we like the Magi, like Mary and Joseph we would be following the leading of God. It was the messiah, after all who said, “whatever you do for the least of these my brothers you do for me.” When we choose to take that route, then Christmas does not end when the tree is put away. We will be celebrating a different kind of Christmas, because every day we love people is like Christmas.
Tonight and tomorrow, let’s enjoy our familiar and favorite Christmas traditions. But may we also travel by a different route this year. May the way we celebrate and honor this sacred day not just be through our well known traditions. May we celebrate Christmas by how we choose to love others. May that be our true and spiritual act of worship, not just on December 25th but on the days following that on into the new year. May we truly love the people we interact with and in doing so may we celebrate the birth of the Christ child every day.