Sunday, December 11, 2011

A year without Christmas?

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 (Rejoice!); John 1:6-8, 19-28 (testifying to the Light)

Not everyone loves Christmas. Despite the hope, peace, joy and love we are supposed to experience during Advent; despite the celebrations of the coming of God's light into a dark world; and despite all the parties, meals, and gift-giving, some of us may not feel much like Christmas this year.

Maybe we are already busy and don't want a whole new round of Christmas activities to add to our calendar. Maybe we are grieving a loss and don't feel particularly peaceful or joyful. Maybe we are not getting along with some of our family members and don't look forward to big family gatherings. Maybe our budget is already tight before the annual ritual of gift-buying. 

And so, maybe this year we would rather join with Ebeneezer Scrooge to say "Bah, Humbug" instead of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

If we feel this way, could we just skip Christmas this year?

This idea of skipping Christmas came to my mind because our weekly Scripture readings do not include a reading from Mark today or for the next four weeks. The list skips over Mark even though we are just three Sundays into the Year of Mark, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. 

We have temporarily abandoned Mark because Mark's Gospel -- unlike Matthew's and Luke's, whose Gospels form the spine of the other two years, Years A and C -- does not tell the story of the birth of Jesus. This week our Gospel reading is from John, which also contains no birth stories. And for a reason that escapes me, today's reading from John closely parallels the reading we heard from Mark last week about John the Baptist. 

Next week and until mid-January, we will switch to Luke. And next Sunday we will also finally come to something related to Christmas in a reading about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. To celebrate Christmas at Sunday worship services this year, we leave Mark behind for a month.

But what about a radical alternative? Instead of padding Year B, the Year of Mark, with Christmas stories from Luke, could we not just skip Christmas every third year? Do we really need to celebrate it every year, especially since so many of us have trouble with the hoopla around Christmas?

I imagine that it might seem odd to hear this idea from a minister; and it is not one that I seriously propose. I raise it today for a few reasons: to give some background on the puzzling selections in the Lectionary, to highlight the sadness many of us experience at Christmas, and to ask the question of how we can experience true joy at Christmas instead of the forced joy that sometimes marks this season. Joy is available to us this Christmas as at any moment. But what is a sure path to it?

St. Paul in our reading from First Thessalonians today urges us to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances." And when life goes our way, it might seem easy to rejoice. If our family is happy, our community peaceful, our bank accounts full, the weather fair, and the economic outlook good, who wouldn't want to rejoice?

However, our household may not always be happy. We may be unsuccessful in finding love or companionship. We may be sick. We may not have recovered yet from the floods of the spring. We may be worried about agricultural prices or the job outlook. We may be thinking of moving to the city because there are still no doctors in this region. The list could go on. 

If these circumstances are ours this year, is it still possible for us to rejoice, pray and give thanks? I believe that we can do so when, with God's help, we also look deeply into our troubling circumstances. And that is a good reason, I believe, to hear the Christmas stories every year, even in the Year of Mark.

The stories of the birth of Jesus remind us again that everyday and difficult conditions are those in which God's help is most visible to us.

At Christmas, we remember that God comes to us in the form of a helpless baby who is full of the promise of light, life, and love. Christmas, like Easter, reminds us that God's strength lies in weakness, that love and grace lie in ordinary conditions and that God is with us even in the most humble of circumstances.

And so most of us look forward to Christmas regardless of how the rest of our year has gone. We look forward to the star, the stable, and the birth of God's son to a poor young woman and her carpenter husband. We connect the beautiful and humble beginning of the life of Jesus with the terrible and humble end of Jesus' life on the cross. Jesus is God in solidarity with us. Like us, he is born as a helpless infant who is filled with God's infinite potential. Like us he dies in humiliation and pain. And like us, he is raised by God to new life through the power of God's Spirit.

St Paul urges us not to quench the Spirit, to heed the difficult words of prophets like Isaiah and to test everything. Testing everything might include questioning some of our Christmas traditions. It might involve wondering about the differences between the birth stories in Matthew and Luke and their absence from John and Mark. And it might involve going deeper into our sadness, pain and loss at Christmas instead of immediately focusing on joy, wonder and praise.

Many of us, I believe, feel drawn to pray every day, to worship every Sunday, and to celebrate Christmas every year not because our situation is wonderful but precisely because it is not so wonderful. It may be tough times that prompt us to try to pray, worship and celebrate.

This is the case with St. Paul, I believe. Paul often writes of his suffering. He writes of his fears of attack, arrest and death. He writes of his disappointments in congregations that he helped to create. But he has been healed by his encounter with the Risen Christ and he lives in the sure hope of life in Christ in any moment and at the end of life. And so Paul rejoices, prays and gives thanks. 

I am glad that the early church set the date of Christmas at the end of December. You know, 90% of the people on earth live in the northern hemisphere where Dec 22nd is the shortest day of the year. So many of us crave a celebration of the return of light at this time of year. There is nothing in the Bible that says when Jesus' birth occurred. But it makes sense to me that we celebrate it at the end of December.

I am also glad that our churches more and more recognize the difficulties some of us have with the hype and forced gaiety of Christmas. One of my favourite services each year is Blue Christmas, where those of us who are mourning or dealing with sadness in our lives -- and who would not be included in that group? -- gather to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child in a sombre and reflective way. 

This year, we will hold a Blue Christmas service at Wesley United Church in Rockglen on Thursday December 22nd at 7:30 pm. And if anyone from Coronach or Fife Lake would like to come to that service, please let me know. Perhaps we could car pool there.

At that service, we will not skip the candles nor hopes for peace, joy and love in our lives. But we will search for God's hope in failure as well as success, for God's peace in families and communities that sometimes suffer from aggression and hurt, and for God's joy and love in hard times as well as easy ones.

If some years we skip the decorations, gifts, and big family meals with all the trimmings at Christmas, I could be OK with that. But during any Christmas, I try to remember God's solidarity with us in Christ Jesus both as a helpless infant and as our Redeemer on the cross. At Christmas as at any time, God in Christ comes to us humbly to help turn loneliness into soulful solitude, pain into perseverance, hurt into love, despair into hope, and fear into an unshakeable joy.
And so this Advent as we wait again in hope for peace and joy, we repeat the refrain . . . 

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


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