To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’
This is an ornament that hangs on our Christmas tree every year. It is nothing special in most ways. It is simply an egg from which we extracted the yoke and then dyed it red with food coloring. It is cradled in a small macramé net that is made out of string. My guess is that almost any elementary school student could make one of these if they were willing to invest a little time in the project. And while it is nothing special in most ways … it is exceptional in one way … at least to my wife Nancy and me. It is special, because it is the oldest ornament on our Christmas tree every year. Nancy and I made it in 1979, the year before we were married, and it has hung on our Christmas trees for the 37 years since. We were married between the 1sy and 2nd years of my studies at Gettysburg Seminary and we knew then that life would be financially challenging. Nancy was leaving her full time job in New York. And back in the early 80’s Gettysburg had very few full time jobs available for seminarian couples who were regularly moved around the country for field education assignments. So, as we thought ahead, we decided to save a few bucks and make our own Christmas ornaments out of walnut shells and felt and scrap wood and popcorn and toothpicks … and eggs and string. We made two of these egg ornaments, the other being a blue one … but it broke about ten years ago, along with the rest of the ornaments we made. This is the only ornament we have left from those we made in 1979. Some fell apart … some broke … and some were eaten by the dog. As a result, this is an extremely precious ornament for us both.
The Christmas season could be described in the very same way. In many respects, it is an ordinary season, filled with the kinds of things that we do at other times during the year … having parties … traveling to visit relatives … buying presents for those we love … observing traditions. But in one respect, it is an extraordinary and exceptional season. Because it centers around a story that we Christians believe has transformed the world forever. The arrival of God … in the flesh … into our world … for your redemption and mine. It sounds pretty simple, right? And yet as the children of this great and gracious God, we continue to have all kinds of struggles around the Christmas season. Families argue … people overspend on gifts … we allow parties that should be fun and light gatherings to become planning nightmares … we fret over all the traffic … and we complain about commercialism — while we’re standing on line at Boscov’s for its Seven Days to Christmas Sale. We’re our own worst enemies at this time of the year. Why?
If I would ask you to submit your answers to that question on Survey Monkey, I would hear some interesting reasons as to why we struggle during the Christmas season, I bet. Now THAT would make for an interesting Christmas Eve sermon, right? “My family fights at Christmas because Uncle So-and-So is a Scrooge.” “I didn’t overspend on my gifts, I simply felt compelled to spend as much money (or maybe a little more) as people spent on me?” “I’m only screaming at the driver in front of me because I have to get to the store … remember? … I have to spend as much money as people spent on me?” [Just for the record, screaming at other drivers, while I’m sitting in traffic happens to be Christmas distraction of choice.]
And of course, that really is the heart of it, isn’t it … that is why we struggle … because we allow far too many things to distract us. It is why we have TV shows that show people putting up Christmas lights on their homes that makes Clark Griswald look like an amateur middle schooler. It is why this year’s Neiman Marcus fantasy catalogue will be glad to send you to the Grammy Awards Celebration in February for the bargain price of a quarter of a million dollars, or allow you to have a sleepover party at their flagship store in Dallas, Texas, for just a cool $120,000. And it may be why Christmas is the day of the year with the second highest rate of alcohol consumption, second only to …. New Year’s Eve … maybe we are trying to imbibe ourselves into forgetting that we have allowed ourselves to be distracted from that which we desire at the deepest corner of our souls. It just doesn’t have to be this difficult. The Christmas season is Part 1 of the divine drama of salvation, in which God visits us with more not only words, but with a sermon wrapped in flesh and blood. It is a drama that unfolds in the Easter season with Part 2 of the story, where the baby we adore today, becomes the man who is despised and rejected, but also raised to new life and glorified. It is the drama that will conclude with that last great heavenly party in the Kingdom of God, where God gathers his family for the final time, and will not need to serve any booze to make us feel good about our lives.
It is an extraordinary story that is seen through the eyes of our ordinary lives, if we can just open them wide enough and pay attention to what in unfolding right under our very feet. There are many ways that you can choose to experience this extraordinary life to which calls you,that is set in an ordinary and routine world. For me, one of my favorite descriptions of what it means to see the extraordinary in the midst of the ordainry is found in a few fiction words about about any clergyperson … serving in any church in any town you like. I read these words from Frederick Buechner every year as a reminder of where my eyes should be focused this season. They are words that can work for us all, whether you wear your collar backwards or not.
The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they’re about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor’s sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger. He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle. Christmas itself is this grace.
May your Christmas in fact be merry, in ways that surprise you … in ways that burn off your distracted thoughts like an early morning fog … in ways that communicate to you this world changing, powerful, grace … that is come unto you … this day … in the city of David … and for us on this night, in the city of Lancaster. Amen.
Lovely imagery and obviously deeper meaning. Of course, hanging that ornament as a kid brought deep Christmas terrors out of fear for being the destroyer of the oldest Ross ornament–a Christmas distraction not of my choice 😉
Thank you for the lovely words that remind us of what the season is about.
Since we have broken all the rest of them, you would have been graciously forgiven, even as we shed tears. Death and life is part of Christmas, too, right? Love you, Jess.