And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
It was Christmas Eve at Truro Church, and there was the usual frantic activity everywhere. We held four full Eucharistic services with the first two designed to be family-friendly and the latter two more formal and usually standing-room-only. Because of the pressure on seating, we had developed a tradition of pre-service music and readings beginning 45 minutes before the actual service time, when people were already gathering. Truro enjoyed grand processions, and on Christmas Eve we added costumed adult representatives of the Holy Family to the usual array of acolytes, choir, lay Eucharist ministers, and the clergy. Mary and Joseph in full Eastern garb always carried a real baby – usually the most recently born child in the congregation.
As I checked to see that all was in order, I noticed that instead of a real baby, “Mary” was holding a large plastic baby doll! I inquired about this rather inadequate substitution and was told that the mother of the intended baby had just called in sick. The altar guild representative overheard our conversation and was horrified! She immediately offered to run home and bring her own grandchild who had just been put to bed – off she went, arriving back just as the procession began – a sleepy baby in her arms. Sighs of relief sounded all around, and another Christmas Eve service was underway.
But the question does arise – where did all this tradition start? And is it worth all the effort?
I know well that God can use these festive celebrations for good … I wrote about one such example in my Ad Clerum on Virtual Worship. There I told the story of a non-believing couple, Samuel and Emily, who began their faith journey because of their Christmas Eve experience at Truro. But the question still remains – why and where did all these Christmas traditions start? Growing up in England I don’t recall any special emphasis on Christmas Eve – except for all the anticipation surrounding the preparations for Christmas morning. Christmas Day was when we came together for worship, always followed by a substantial Christmas dinner!
How did this busy vision of Christmas originate? Actually, it has very little to do with the original story. Most of the familiar images of Christmas have more to do with Charles Dickens’s masterpiece A Christmas Carol than with Luke’s Gospel. It is from Dickens that we derive all of these things:
- Our vision of snow falling quietly over a quaint old city, transforming its gray squalor into beauty.
- Our image of carolers, wrapped in mufflers and cloaks, standing under softly glowing street lamps as they sing to people hurrying by with packages under their arms.
- Our dream of a family gathered together around the hearth in perfect harmony and total accord.
More than anyone else, Charles Dickens created the contemporary dream that we work so hard to incarnate every year. It is Dickens, too, who built into our awareness some of the inconsistencies of the season – through his graphic portrayal of the two unforgettable characters Ebenezer Scrooge, the tight-fisted miser who was almost consumed by his own greed, and Tiny Tim, the poor little crippled boy who never gave in to despair. But there are several other characters in this story that we sometimes forget – my favorite is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. He is the one who knows how to celebrate Christmas, he is the one who reaches out to Bob Cratchit and family, and he is the one who never gives up on his Uncle Ebenezer.
It is a great story that had a powerful impact in England when it was first published in the middle of the 19th century. A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Great Story of Christmas has been translated into numerous languages, and its movie and theater productions still draw enthusiastic crowds. It has become a contemporary parable of promise and renewal that has a special appeal at Christmas time, but I believe that it is a helpful way for us to look at the original Christmas story.
On that first Christmas Eve, when the stars were shining brightly, it was unlikely that there was any snow on the ground. However, there were shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem keeping watch over the flocks. It was a serious responsibility, because robbers were ready to steal any sheep that wandered too far, and wild animals were always looking for a quick meal. Shepherds were low on the socio-economic ladder and could lose their jobs if they lost too many sheep – so these shepherds were very much on the alert.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and their lives were forever changed. God had intervened into their lives, into their world, and nothing was ever the same. That is the true story of Christmas. The birth of Jesus changes everything and everyone. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (c. 296-373), put it this way, “He became what we are that He might make us like He is.”
His friends hardly recognized the new Mr. Scrooge. He was so filled with joy that he could hardly keep from giggling. He turned from a life of all-consuming selfishness to one of exuberant generosity.
The birth of Jesus changes everything. That’s one reason all of those angels showed up – it was and is an event of cosmic significance. The whole course of human history was changed. Art, music, literature – Western culture itself reflects this reality. And there is a truth beyond that: for millions of people who have lived since, the birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it. Is celebrating Christmas worth all the effort? YOU BET IT IS!
Wishing you a joy-filled Christmas.