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This season is also known for the ubiquitous Christmas pageant - ours is done, but there are others all around. I read recently (1) of a heated discussion between some pleading grown-ups and a particularly adamant five-year-old. She would wear her new dress or she would not appear in the pageant. First, the Director begged her, "Please put on the costume. The people want to see you as MARY."
"NO," replied the girl, "Either I wear this new red dress or I will not go out on the stage."
Next, her Sunday School teacher pleaded with her: "This costume is just like Mary would have worn. Mary was the mother of Jesus and you want to look right for the part, don't you?"
"NO!" answered the little girl. "Either I wear this new red dress or I will not go out on the stage."
Finally her parents instructed her, "You must wear this costume, because when you are on stage, the people need to think of you as Mary and they will be confused if you are not dressed right."
"NO!" said the girl. "If I can't wear my new red dress, I am not going out there."
Clearly, the adults were getting nowhere. An emergency conference was convened. It was already past time for the play to begin. The Director stepped out from behind the curtains and announced, "Due to circumstances beyond our control, Mary the mother of Jesus will appear tonight in a new red dress."
From behind the curtain, the audience could clearly hear a young voice shout, "If Mary had had a new red dress that night, she would have worn it." Ho, Ho, Ho!
I know the thing I enjoy most about the season is the excitement I see on children's faces. My kids have outgrown talking to shopping mall Santas, but one day I hope to have that joy again with grandchildren. Charles Dickens wrote, "I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round...as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely...And therefore... though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it HAS done me good, and WILL do me good; and I say, God bless it." Merry Christmas... Merry, Merry Christmas!
Or perhaps I should say, "Merry XMAS." After all, that is the greeting with which we are annually faced. We see it in department store windows. It is on the cards we receive. Nine glorious, gilded letters are strung, sagging in the middle across doorways and halls and aisles all over the English-speaking world cheerfully celebrating one of the great events in history...the birth of "X." Merry Xmas!
No, this has nothing to do with the trumped up "War on Christmas" that Fox News has been battling for the past couple of years - complaints about greetings of "Happy Holidays" rather than specific references to the Nativity. Now, apparently, even Fox is getting tired of the issue so, a couple of weeks ago, Bill O'Reilly simply declared victory - and he had won the war virtually on his own, according to him. He asserted, "If I had not done the campaign, then the forces of darkness would have won. There's no question about that." It is, however, a bit ironic that Bill announced victory in an interview with Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who was on his show promoting an observance of Christmas that laid less emphasis on giving and receiving gifts and more on the blessed birth and the teachings of that babe of Bethlehem emphasizing love of neighbor and care for the poor. O'Reilly's reaction? "Ai-yai-yai...if that's the way you think, how is Christmas in the Land of Oz? Do you celebrate it any differently?" (2) Good job, Bill-o, good job. And a hearty Merry Xmas to you too.
Has that ever bothered you? Merry X-mas? Years ago, C. S. Lewis in Letters to an American Lady wrote, "Just a hurried line...to tell a story which puts the contrast between OUR feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly 'Xmas' racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a bus say, as the bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, "Oh Lor'! They bring religion into everything. Look--they're dragging it even into Christmas now!" (3)
For years folks have complained about that "XMAS" abbreviation. They shout, "Keep Christ in Christmas," decrying the commercialization of the whole season along with Ms. Kelley as much as the use of "X." Half of the complaint is valid. No one would deny that the season has been taken over by the wizards of mass marketing in their quest to be the first-est with the most-est. Most of us remember the not too distant past when Christmas advertising began on the day after Thanksgiving. Now we get it in late September. I am told that buyers for the major retail chains begin their search for Christmas merchandise in February and March. There is no question as to the over-commercialization of Christmas.
As to the other part of the complaint...the X...there is less validity. To the English-speaking world, X is simply the twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet. But to the Greeks, the ones in whose language the New Testament was written, those diagonally-crossed lines are the letter "Chi," the first letter in the name "Christos," the Messiah. Through the years it has been an acceptable abbreviation for Christ. If you look at the lecture notes I took years ago in seminary, you will see it all over the place.
To backtrack a moment, I am less than accurate when I say that "X" to us is only a letter of the alphabet. Any math student would happily correct me. In algebra, it represents an unknown: 2+3=X...3x3=X. But suppose for a moment that the "X" in XMAS also represented an unknown, not "the Word made Flesh," as our lesson puts it. Suppose the Babe of Bethlehem were just another of the countless millions through the centuries who are born and die with no notice taken of them by any history. In short, suppose Christ had never come.
It would not be difficult to imagine those in Bethlehem not realizing that anything remarkable was taking place that night. To the travelers who had arrived before Mary and Joseph, there may have been some twinges of compassion at the sight of the young couple (the woman VERY pregnant) making their way through dark and dusty streets, but none apparently made any offers of help, not for an "X." To the Roman legionnaire who stood watch, on guard for any signs of trouble in the crowded town, the unborn "X" was just one more potential rebel in that troubled land.
What if they had been right? Assume they were and picture the result for the world. Several authors have written books through the years on the condition of this planet if indeed that Bethlehem child had been merely an "X"...not Christ at all. Henry Rogers was one of those and his work was called The Eclipse of Faith. (4) In it he imagines that some powerful hand has wiped the influence of Christ out of our civilization, as a hand would clean a blackboard in a schoolroom. Rogers represents himself as going into his library to find no trace left of the life or words of Jesus. All had vanished. The law books that provided protection for widows, children, and the poor showed pages blank except for the numbers at the bottom. Chapters had important paragraphs missing turning them into meaningless jargon.
Suitably alarmed, he turned himself to his histories of art, and where "The Transfiguration" and "The Last Supper" had been, he found empty spaces. He pictured a tour through the great galleries of the world and found frame upon empty frame that had once contained the work of the great masters. As a lover of architecture he envisioned the beautiful cathedrals of Rome, Paris and Milan; he saw what was once Westminster Abbey. In each case the only thing remaining was a huge, gaping crater of a cellar. After all, they had been constructed in the design of a cross, and without the one who had been sacrificed on the cross, there would have been no call for constructing a building in the shape of one. He considered the greatest poems of Dante and Milton, of Wordsworth and Tennyson and again found empty pages and, indeed, empty books. Finally, Rogers realized that, if Christ had not come, the beautiful philanthropies, the missions, the hospitals, the schools that have had such a magnificent influence both at home and abroad, would all perish, as if shaken down by some cosmic earthquake. It was a shattering view.
I suppose there are those who would not find the sight so devastating. They would be willing to sacrifice some art, some literature, some history for the sake of argument. They would admit that it would be sad to lose these great masterpieces, but life would go on. After all, the innate genius of the human spirit would make up the difference. "Every day in every way we get better and better." Nice thought...but it is a lie! Libraries could be filled with the gory tales of "Man's inhumanity to man." The Bible is more realistic - it calls us all sinners.
But the humanist comes back and says, "No! Auschwitz, Hiroshima, My Lai, Haditha - these are done in the name of institutions, not humankind. Men and Women are GOOD! It is the institutions that are evil. If poverty and ignorance were wiped out and each one got a slice of the pie, everything would be all right." Nice try. I wonder how often through the centuries have utopian societies been attempted, only to fail every time. Is it because they have become institutions, or is it because they were populated by human beings? The latter, I fear, because after all, institutions are merely OUR creations to better organize society. Mark Twain said it best - "Man is the only animal that blushes...or needs to."
But the most disheartening thought is that all this is true in spite of the fact that Christ DID come, that the child of Bethlehem WAS more than just another baby. Without that birth, we would be immeasurably worse off.
Think about the world as it existed before the coming of Christ. We take for granted what only centuries of Christian influence have brought about. No longer do we concern ourselves about questions of human slavery, but it existed that night in Bethlehem. Women are no longer considered as little more than property, but they were that evening in the Judean hills. The hard labor of little children is today prohibited by law in civilized society, but it was not around that manger. Human sacrifice would be considered unthinkable today, but on that most precious night, it was occurring in countries all around Israel. Little babies born less than perfect are no longer routinely drowned or left to starve, but they were in that day.
No one would deny that we still live in a terribly imperfect world. We continue to be plagued with horrible examples of what people do to each other - the holocaust of the Nazis, genocide in Darfur, 9/11, continued terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. In the third world today we see governments more concerned about fighting rebels than feeding their starving millions. The news is filled with stories of individual murder, rape, and robbery... all in spite of two thousand years of the influence of the God who loved creation so much as to take on its form to show us ever after how we are expected to live. How much worse could it have been without that influence?
Indeed, there is much that we would have lost had Christ not come. Most certainly, we would have had a much different picture of what God is like. As we read through the Old Testament, we are struck by the awesome presence of a jealous and vengeful Creator, one who has...and uses...a mighty power to destroy the earth in a flood; one who rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah in anger; one who wages all-out war against enemies. Over and over again, we are confronted with an apparently merciless portrait. To be sure, the picture is incomplete, but the gentle, forgiving, sympathetic aspects of the one we call "Our Father" are much less noticeable.
A preacher came into a kindergarten-age Sunday School class to speak with the children. He asked one little girl, "Do you love Jesus?"
"Oh yes," she said, "but I hate God."
You see, that is part of the reason Christ had to come. Had he not, we might never have had a true picture of God...one who loves us in spite of our sin.
But, of course, there was more reason. He came to die for us...to die that we might live. The God of justice in the Old Testament had made certain stipulations as to what a right relationship required and the basis of it was a system of offerings and sacrifices that human beings had made virtually of no effect. So in divine love, God substituted one all-encompassing sacrifice that gave humanity another chance...the Babe of the Manger became the Christ of the Cross.
Love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign. (5)
That love is SO important. Had Jesus been nothing more than a nameless, faceless "X," how would we manage when our lives begin to tumble in around us? When we have lost someone more dear to us than we could ever express? When our families are falling apart? When the job is lost or when business goes down the tubes? In the middle of the darkest night, as we lie there thinking about the disaster area we call LIFE, to whom would we go...if not to Jesus?
We needed Jesus that night in Bethlehem. We need him now. And we will continue to need him in the same way until he comes again...not as a helpless infant, but as a mighty conqueror. Then there will be no question as to whether or not he was more than an "X." In that day, "every knee should bow...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born. (6)
Yes, this IS a glorious time of the year...the music, the celebration, the unpredictable pageants, the joy on the faces of our children...even all the wishes of Merry Xmas. After all, he is NOT an "X." He is Lord.
1. Al Fasol, Humor with a Halo, (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, 1989), pp. 25-26
3. Lewis, C. S., Letters to an American Lady, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 80
4. Quoted by Newell Dwight Hillis, "What If Christ Were Not?" The World's Great Sermons, (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1943), p. 200
5. Roger Copeland
6. African-American Spiritual