Driving from Texas to Michigan in December 1977, John Lennon's "Happy Christmas" was on the air across the country. Lennon's melancholy lyrics, particularly the line, "So this is Christmas, and what have we done, another year older, and a new one begun," expressed my view of Christmas. It was but a brief time of happiness in an otherwise blighted and benighted world. And what does such a view of Christmas leave in it's wake? Emptiness. Empty homes, empty boxes, empty tables. Twenty-five years later I can tell you what the problem is. It's Kwanza. Let me explain.
Kwanza is a celebration of African-American heritage. It begins on December 26 and lasts for 7 days. It was created in 1966 by an American graduate student. You might think Kwanza silly because it's a made up holiday not even 40 years old. What you don't see is that the Christmas we've all been raised to celebrate is an invention of 19th century America. Many things we identify with Christmas come from the 1800s. The tree, though it has roots in the 700s and Christian ideas associated with it date to Luther, the first time a Christmas tree is mentioned in America is 1821. The poinsettia dates to 1828. Santa has Christian roots in the 400s, but the Santa stuff we grew up with is pure 1800s. "The Night Before Christmas" was written in 1822. The traditional picture of Santa is from 1881. The first Christmas cards were sent in 1843.
The 19th century American holiday is a fragile thing. It can be killed easily. Consider the folks in our text. If ever their were candidates for a lousy Christmas, these folks are it. Simeon comes into the temple alone. Aged Anna spends all her time in the temple. Where else is an old widow women going to go? Think of Mary and Joseph away from their Bethlehem home at Christmas time. How sad! Loneliness, lack of family will kill an American Christmas fast.
So does a harsh life. Though the text doesn't specifically say Simeon was old, everyone pictures him that way. The text does say Anna was "very old." The text can be understood as saying she was married for 7 years and then widowed for 84 which would make her about 105. Hard to have a good 19th century Christmas when you're aching and ornery, isn't it?
Poverty also makes a lousy American Christmas. You just can't have a good American Christmas if you're poor. That's why all America bands together to feed and gift the poor. 364 days they're not our problem, but on Christmas they are. A woman who grew up orphaned said that each Christmas they were brought to the ladies society of her town and given food and gifts. She thought the ladies did this so they themselves could have a good Christmas. If there is no one less fortunate than you, that makes you poor. And how then could you have a good American Christmas?
A harsh life kills an American Christmas. Poverty makes life harsh. The text doesn't give the economic conditions of Simeon and aged Anna, but do you get the impression they were well off? We do know Mary and Joseph were poor. The verses before our text tell us that they offered sacrifices according to the Law. You were suppose to bring a lamb, but if you couldn't afford one, you could bring a dove. They brought a dove. Mary and Joseph were poor; poverty kills the American Christmas.
So does a foreboding future. Ever have to go in for a "test" right after Christmas? Ever have a problem that couldn't be dealt with till "after the holidays?" Clouds on the horizon darken the American Christmas. Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph would have had a very dark American Christmas. Simeon was promised that he wouldn't see death till he saw the Christ. When he saw Him, he knew he would die. "You now dismiss your servant," he says. And how about Anna? Yeah, I see a lot of good things in her future whether she be 84 or 104.
What about Mary and Joseph? They are told their Baby is destined to cause the fall of many and to be a sign that will be spoken against. Gees that's just peachy news to hear on Christmas, isn't it? But that's not all Mary is told a huge, Roman broadsword will pierce her own soul too. That's not a cloud on the horizon that's a major, violent cold front. To make matters more painful, hidden in this front is the news that Joseph will not be around when Mary's soul is brutally stabbed. Simeon says that only Mary's soul will pierced. If stepfather Joe would be there, his name would've been mentioned too. So do you think you could have a merry Christmas if you were told your spouse would be dead at the bitterest time in your life? I couldn't, but they did.
Their Christmas ought to have been DOA, but it wasn't. They had a joyful Christmas. Simeon's words at seeing the Christmas Baby for the first time are so joyous the Church has for centuries used them as a festive song in Her Communion liturgy. Thanksgiving overflows the aged Anna's heart, yet what does such a one have to be thankful for? Simeon doesn't act the age we suppose him to be, and Anna doesn't act the age we know she is. We see Simeon sweeping the Christ-Child up in his arms like a young man, and Anna "coming up" suddenly to the holy family like an excited school girl. Far from loneliness, poverty, old age or a foreboding future killing their Christmas, the Christ of Christmas gave them the joy of being young again.
What about Mary's and Joseph's Christmas? Before the prophesy about the future, the text tells us they "marveled at what was said about Jesus." After the prophesy, we are only told they went back to their own town. This is significant. Luke, writing after Matthew, knew that the holy family had first gone back to Bethlehem, then had to flee to Egypt, and only after that had they gone back to Nazareth. But all of that is skipped over. We see the holy family going back and living an idyllic life in their own town just watching Jesus grow and God's grace shine. Their Christmas wasn't killed either.
But ours is, and I'm speaking about yours and mine right here right now. I can say this because for the past 2 years the First Sunday after Christmas has been hymn pick Sunday, and not one Christmas hymn was picked. That's not wrong. That's not a sin, but it tells me our Christmas goes the way of the American one, that is, it runs from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. The days after Christmas are ones of emptiness: gone are the relatives, gone are the presents, the trees, the decorations, and gone are the Christmas carols. Back, pressing hard against us, is the loneliness, the harshness, the darkness of the days ahead. Rather than carrying on our revelry with the historic Church till the Feast of Epiphany, over the famed 12 days of Christmas, we carry out our Christmas with the rest of America like so much torn up wrapping paper.
The American Christmas makes nothing lastingly different, so it's easily killed. The true Christmas makes everything forever different. It makes the old, young, the poor, rich, the lonely, loved, the sinner a saint and the comfortless, comforted. Christmas is the arrival of the "consolation of Israel," the Lord's Christ. "Comfort, Comfort ye My People," God said to us in Advent. Christmas is the arrival of that comfort, that consolation. There's a lot wrong in the world today. War seems imminent; a terror attack seems likely. The economy seems sleepy. And there are personal problems: of age, of health, of family discord and private turmoil. Only a fool would console such troubled people with trite words like, "It will be alright." Only a fool would console people that way...or God in flesh and blood.
When God stepped into our time and space through the flesh and blood of a Child born of a virgin, He thundered, "It will be alright! Don't you remember as a child being caught in some situation in which to you there was no hope or help? Then an adult stepped in and said, "It will be alright," and it was; because what is very difficult for a child is often times very easy for an adult. How much more can God do for His children than men can for theirs! Christmas is God stepping into your situation; it's God siding with you over against age, disease, death, devil, and sin.
There's the real problem. Not age, not disease, not death, and not even the devil, but our sin. Remove the sin and you're young again. Remove sin and what does disease or death even do? Remove sin and with what could the devil accuse and chase you? Sin is the real problem; that's why Simeon sung of salvation and Anna spoke of the Child as being the redemption she hoped for.
Christ comes at Christmas not to make us friendlier to our neighbor, not to move us to help the less fortunate, and not so we might have a good American Christmas. He comes to redeem us. He slipped into our humanity that He might stand under the Law and judgment of divinity. He stepped out of heaven into our dust to raise our dust to heaven. The many sins that haunt you in your old age, frighten you in your sickness, and tell you, you deserve your troubles, have been paid for by Christ on the cross. You have been redeemed: You have been purchased and won by Christ, so that you may live the rest of your days in a paradise of innocence and blessedness.
The true Christmas has lasting effects. Its like all the legends of the American Christmas dream it should be. Scrooge does take the Crachits under his wing; Rudolph is accepted in the reindeer games; Frosty does come back each year, and the Grinch does celebrate Christmas now. Having Christ on the scene makes water no longer just plain Water but a Baptism, a gracious water of life. Having Christ on the scene makes forgiveness not some far off wish but a spoken reality here in our time. With Christ on the scene Bread and Wine can be His Body and Blood so that I can actually see my salvation before my very eyes.
Think I might be "over the top" by saying that Christmas means we can see our salvation, our Lord in Communion? Why do you think for centuries the Church has placed Simeon's Song after Communion? We confess that we no less see our Savior in Communion than Simeon did in the temple. We no less have Him in our mouths than Simeon had Him in his arms.
Simeon was different because he saw and held the Christ; you and I are different because we see and are held by Christ in our Baptisms, in His forgiving Word, and in the Holy Communion. These things don't come to an end with the Christmas trees, Christmas presents, and Christmas foods. These things don't come to an end with the American Christmas; Baptism, Absolution, and Communion begin with the true Christmas and last all the way to eternity. Christmas is the start of something big, something different, something beyond age, disease, death and sin. It's so big that nothing in life, even fallen life can kill it. Once it's out of the box it just can't be put back in and away like you do the decorations of Christmas. It goes on and out to rejoice, comfort, and change lives. Now this is Christmas. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday After Christmas (12-29-02), Luke 2:25-40