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What do you believe about Christmas?
I mean in your core, your heart, soul, the marrow of your being, what does Christmas mean to you? What really matters?
I confess, as much as I am often turned off by sentimentality and so much of the kitsch of the holidays, a good deal of it has seeped into me too. Especially as I get older, various elements can hold vast storehouses of memories and the data points of connection. One moment your traipsing along your day hastily going to and fro accomplishing that which needs to get done, and then something crosses your path—a moment, decoration, cartoon, song, whatever—and the floodlights illuminate what you weren’t even aware was so closely present and suddenly, you’re back there, transported through time and space. It really is like the opening verse of the Indigo Girls’ Ghost:
There’s a letter on the desktop that I dug out of a drawer
The last truce we ever came to from our adolescent war
And I start to feel the fever from the warm air through the screen
You come regular like seasons shadowing my dreams
Christmas ghosts can be everywhere. The above song Ghost is about romantic love, lost yet lingering. But the ghosts of memories especially at Christmas can be of any nature. When I was young I thought there was something incongruous with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, talking of ghosts at Christmas time. Now I see how incredibly appropriate it is.
Case in point: while running errands earlier this week there was piped-in music along the street. Most of the time this simply makes me irritable. But at some point Bing Crosby started to sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Suddenly, I was no longer on Myrtle Avenue shopping in Ridgewood, Queens, but instead was in the Vernon Elementary School gymnasium for my school’s Christmas Concert. (I think back then we still inappropriately and insensitively called it that instead of a more welcoming “Holiday”.) I was in fifth grade, playing the trumpet, and our band was performing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Admittedly, the song didn’t do much for me, but it did for my grandpa. He was in the front row, along with my Grandma and parents, a tough and sturdy old farmer and factory worker who had served overseas during the Second World War. He’s wiping copious tears from his eyes. How is it that a song—meaningful for my grandfather’s generation albeit a little kitschy to me—can mysteriously transport me to my childhood, to family, and even melancholic joy? It’s some sort of Christmas ghosts.
My Christmas ghosts, even when tinged with significant sadnesses and loss, still connect me to joy, belonging, family, and home. Especially home. I realize that’s not so for many.
But for me, these memories and elements also help to orientate what really matters about Christmas. And I use orientate specifically, as in location. It was no discrepancy that Ebenezer’s ghosts took him places. Maybe there are different kinds of ghosts, those that haunt us in place and those that transport us, opening and enabling us to see change, be changed.
I was at another holiday concert last night here in my neighbourhood. Our church’s organist is also a piano instructor and her students perform twice a year in a recital/concert format. Prior to the start of the recital I was chatting with folks, on my right a man who is in the process of immigrating here from Bulgaria, on my left a young man recently moved here from Spain along with his wife who is from Ukraine. Behind me sat about a half dozen of my own congregants, themselves all immigrant, or first- or second-generation from Germany. Our organist is from Romania as our most of her students. So many have come from someplace else but all are making this place their home.
Our organist is also a devout Christian of the Seventh Day Adventist tradition and wants the concert to be an opportunity for the gospel to be shared and so invites a few pastors to be present and participate, myself included. The hosting location happens to be a conservative Baptist church so we had a conservative Baptist minister with us too. During a time in the service he had the chance to share a short message about Christmas. In many ways he was attempting to answer the question I started this post off with, what do you believe about Christmas? He pointed out rightfully that many of the things we associate with the Christmas story are not necessarily in the bible, things I’m sure many readers of this blog would be aware of, such that no Mary riding a donkey is mentioned or innkeeper or animals at Jesus’ birth or for that matter a stable. He mentioned there were no angels…I want to push back on that one. He did point out however, the reason why Jesus had to be born, the reason for Christmas at all: sin. “The doctrine of sin is the most important doctrine of Christmas,” he said. He continued to talk about how humans have all sinned, knowingly and unknowingly, and we deceive ourselves, all of us. Thus Christmas is about a Saviour being born who went to the cross of Mount Calvary who died a terrible death—he described this a bit more than I would have at a children’s Christmas concert—to save us from hell, because the wages of sin is hell.
Do you ever feel that perhaps the outline isn’t entirely wrong per se but is missing a whole lot? I felt that last night. As did my SDA colleague!
What do you believe about Christmas?
I believe that the message the angels sang to the shepherds is just as true today as it was back when they first proclaimed it:
Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, 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.
While I certainly believe in sin—I’m a Calvinist and have a very high view of it, totally depraved as we all are—I don’t believe that’s what Christmas is all about. Rather, it’s about what the angels said,
of great joy
for all the people.
What do you believe about Christmas? I mean in your core, your heart, soul, the marrow of your being, what does Christmas mean to you? What really matters? I think my Christmas ghosts remind me so much about home because home is what Christmas is all about. Not that one day we get to go home and be with God, but rather, God has made God’s home with us. It is about a Saviour who has made his home with us, a God who dwells with us, a God who is not only with us, but for us.
May we all know what it means to be home for Christmas, to find our home in Chirst. Merry Christmas.