Pastor Rick Warren, the author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, has become the go-to guy for a clear message about Christmas. His book The Purpose of Christmas sums up this glorious event in three short sentences:
· Christmas is a time for celebration.
· Christmas is a time for salvation.
· Christmas is a time for reconciliation.
He says “Regardless of your background, religion, problems, or circumstances, Christmas really is the best news you could get. Beneath all the visible sights and sounds of Christmas are some simple yet profound truths that can transform your life for the better here on earth and for forever in eternity.”
But those words—and those truths—still need to be unpacked on this Christmas morning. We could say that the gift needs to be unwrapped.
I wasn’t sure where to start. But then I came across something the Archbishop of Canterbury said when retired in 2012. Dr. Rowan Williams predicted that his successor will need to preach “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
Well, that’s what I’m doing this Christmas. In my left hand I have the Lectionary with these glorious readings about the birth of Christ.
And in my right hand, I have the Saturday edition of The Globe and Mail.
Somehow or other several stories and photos in the Globe—a very secular paper—made me think about the purpose and message of Christmas, in different ways.
First, there was a picture of five gowned youngsters from the choir of Salisbury Cathedral in England. The caption noted that Christmas has been celebrated in that cathedral for more than 750 years—a welcome reminder of the beauty of our Christmas traditions, of the joy of listening to choirs singing, and indeed the joy of just being in church.
Isn’t it great to be here this morning? Too many of us connect church with obligation, when the right word is celebration. That’s one of the joys of Christmas Mass—almost no one comes out of obligation: we’re drawn here by a celebration.
There was also a story about immigrants to Canada and the strength they find by going to church. Newcomers from China are becoming Christians at the same time as Christians are giving up on church. Some of the most growing congregations—Protestant and Catholic—are Asian.
The article quotes a twenty-one year old woman attending Simon Fraser who has found “strength, commitment, and faith within the rapidly-growing student club at the university.” Many of us have heard stories from Catholic Christian Outreach about campus converts, more than a few of them immigrants.
And there are also many such stories right here in our parish. Strength, commitment and faith are nurtured in this community as we gather each week to worship.
Elsewhere in the paper I read the story of an Edmonton man who leapt on to subway tracks in the face of an oncoming train to save a man who’d fallen off the platform. The article described him as “a humble hero—just what the world needs right about now.”
Certainly we need all the heroes we can get, but as I read the story I kept thinking that a Christian society wouldn’t be quite so astonished by self-sacrifice. A secular newspaper dared not mention the example of the one “who gave Himself for us,” as St. Paul described Christ in our second reading, but that’s who I thought of.
The central fact of Christmas is the gift of our salvation. The headline in the paper read “A humble hero breaks through the compassion deficit.” That’s a mouthful but it almost describes what Jesus did. He gave Himself up for us in the supreme act of compassion that we call salvation or redemption. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes that as shining a light into the darkest corners of human life.
A couple of pages later the paper tells the story of the tragic deaths of a Toronto couple who were known for their philanthropy. But some details of their lives seemed almost as tragic as their deaths; fabulously wealthy people who foreclose on the family homes of relatives can’t have been very happy. The deceased man is quoted as saying “Everything comes down to ego.”
One of the messages of Christmas is that ego is far from everything; indeed it is close to nothing and never brings joy. None of us is the center of attention this morning—we’re focused on a helpless child, come to save the world and to reconcile us to Himself, and one another.
Celebration and salvation lead to reconciliation. The Opinion section of the paper contains a full-page discussion of forgiveness by two people. One of them writes about the man who murdered her father when she was eleven years old. The other is a man who spent four months in a notorious prison in Iran. It’s a dramatic discussion, but there’s no clue as to whether printing it now was connected to this season.
Yet reconciliation and forgiveness are a big part of Christmas. Isaiah gives us a wonderful string of titles for the Child who has been born for us, for the son given to us: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Everlasting Father. But none touches our hearts half as much as the name “Prince of Peace.”
A need to be reconciled—to forgive and be forgiven—robs us of peace. But the Prince of Peace invites his followers to love even enemies, and to let go of the hurts we experience, especially in our families.
Maybe I shouldn’t say Christ invites us to forgive—in fact, he commands it. Isaiah refers twice to the authority given to this Child and he points out the connection between obeying that authority and endless peace. The more we respect God’s authority, the more we will have peace. The more he reigns the more peaceful will his kingdom be.
An article written for the Globe by a prominent lawyer is headed “The rule of law still matters.” The author looks at some recent criminal trials and concludes that Canadians must become more alert to the foundations and importance of our criminal justice system.
That’s true enough. But what matters more is that Canadians become aware of the foundations and importance of the justice system that God has established for our lasting good. Natural and divine laws are intended to increase, not diminish, our joy. God’s authority is a gentle yoke that frees us from the burden rather than imposing one.
God appeared among us to bring salvation and reconciliation. But both of these require that we respect his laws—otherwise what are we doing calling him wonderful, mighty, and everlasting?
The grace of salvation, St. Paul says, offers us training in these laws. Training in self-control and in virtuous living. Salvation not only redeems our sin but purifies us for good works. One of the gifts God gives us is the guidance we need to live the good life.
The Gospel today is a more familiar Scripture passage, with its tender images of Mary and Joseph and their newborn in the manger. But the Gospel too has a very unsentimental aspect. There was no room for them at the inn, just as there is no room for so many refugees and migrants today. The family our parish has sponsored to come to Canada remains stranded in Kenya, twelve of them spending another Christmas in a two-bedroom house, sharing one meal a day.
Even the angel’s words are not sentimental. The angel begins “Do not be afraid.” Why? Because the shepherds are terrified. How many of us are afraid of one thing or another?
Fear is not conquered by sentiment or by the pretty pictures on a Christmas card. Fear is conquered by faith—by believing that a great light has shone into the darkness of our world and of our hearts. The child who has been born for us is called Jesus, because that means ‘saviour.’ Only he saves us from our fears and failings.
Rick Warren’s three-word summary is worth memorizing: Christmas is a time for celebration. A time for salvation. And a time for reconciliation. Celebration. Salvation. Reconciliation.
But we can’t be satisfied with just one of the three. Not even with two. Most of you walked into church this morning in a spirit of celebration. But we should be sure to walk out carrying the free gift of salvation. Because that’s what Christ came to earth to bring.
Nor should anyone leave burdened by unforgiveness. God forgives us, even when others won’t. And he gives us the grace to forgive others, even when we think we can’t.
Amidst the news of the world’s crises, the Globe and Mail did manage to remind me of some happy memories before I folded up the paper. There was a full page story about Stuart McLean, the writer and storyteller who died in February. It talked about his delightful Christmas stories, which I’ve enjoyed so much over many years on the CBC.
In Stuart’s fictional world, the article said, “People are prone to make mistakes, but destined to be forgiven.
“Community, friendship and love always have the upper hand.”
But in the real world that’s not always so. How blessed we are that God always has the upper hand—that the birth of the Christ Child announces that we are not only called to forgive but destined to be forgiven.
That’s the message of salvation and reconciliation that gives the deepest meaning to our Christmas celebration—and the message of Jesus, who shines light and hope even in the deepest darkness.