In my last post I mentioned how many Christmas specials I had seen this year. And I noticed that most of them were about how someone must rediscover the true meaning or spirit of Christmas. And yet these specials never really got specific about what that spirit was. It was just assumed the audience would know. But sometimes there would be a line about Christmas being about family, or love, or giving, or peace, or hope, or joy. But those words encompass a great many notions. So we asked, “what form of those things was meant?” We've looked at the forms family, love and giving took that first Christmas. This post we will look at the other three.
We tend to think that peace is always a good thing. But what kind of peace are we talking about? Is it the peace the Romans brought to the world of the Mediterranean by conquering everyone and forcibly making them into an empire? Is it merely peace of mind, without any external change in circumstances? Is either of these the peace that Christmas is an example of?
What kind of joy? The passing joy of opening presents, or of being off work or school? The joy of seeing family members for the first time in a long time, followed by the realization that you won’t see them again anytime soon? Are these transitory joys the same as the joy that Christmas extends to us?
What kind of hope? Hope for more and more presents? Hope for reconciliation with loved ones who are distant, either geographically or emotionally? Is this the hope Christmas excites in us?
When we talk about the spirit of something, we usually have to resort to the specific expressions of it we see or experience. Because the physical and spiritual are meant to go together. The physical gives form to the spiritual. The spiritual gives meaning to the physical. So to discover what is meant by the spirit of Christmas in regards to peace, hope or joy, we must look at the forms in which the spirit was expressed on the original Christmas.
So what form did the spirit of peace take that Christmas?
When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they said, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people with whom he is pleased.” Most of us are more familiar with the King James version that reads “good will towards men” or the other translation which relies on the Latin: “peace towards men of good will.” But the discovery of older manuscripts and a better understanding of the subtleties of Greek has led the vast majority of modern translations to now read “peace towards people with whom he is pleased” or “whom he favors.” The world usually bestows its favor on those who don’t need it: the powerful, the famous, the beautiful, the shameless, the clever, the ruthless. It gives breaks to those whose don’t need them and denies them to those who do. But God’s peace is distributed based, not on our criteria or priorities, but on his. It is bestowed through his grace, his undeserved, unreserved goodness. It looks capricious to us but that’s because our sense of judgment is warped by this world. However, the judge of all the earth shall do what is just.
But what do the angels mean by peace? To us, it means simply the cessation of strife. There can be such a thing as an uneasy peace. But the Hebrew word “shalom” means more. It means “wholeness, completeness, well-being.” Nevertheless, it does come from the cessation of conflict--our rebellion against God. Jesus was sent to reconcile us with God. But how does that bring us wholeness? When we admit God is God and put him back in charge of our life, we come into harmony with the one who created us and the universe. And we experience that harmony as peace. And as more people do so they come into harmony with each other. So peace with God leads to peace with others.
Of course, not everyone will agree on everything, even when it comes to Christians. But that’s where God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself comes in. You can love people with which you don’t agree. There are couples where one is a diehard Democrat and the other a rock-solid Republican…and yet they function well together. There are inter-faith couples who work out ways to navigate their differences. People can get along despite the fact that one is into conspiracies and one thinks the Illuminati are as real as a threat as the Klingons. And yet there are Christians--like Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, or Missouri Synod Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists or different branches of the Anglican church--who overlook all the essentials they have in common to fight over issues that are of secondary or even tertiary importance.
We need to take a cue from Jesus. He didn’t take a definitive stand on a lot of the hot button religious issues of his day. He saw them as peripheral in contrast to the central truths of God‘s love, justice, forgiveness, and kingdom. And unlike the kingdoms of this world, God‘s does not come in force. Word of it is spread. People accept it. And as they grow in Christ, it grows. Because Jesus is the seed. So the form that the spirit of peace takes the first Christmas is Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
What form did the spirit of joy take the first Christmas? The first angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” You probably know that good news is the literal translation the word “gospel.” I never understood how people ever got the idea that Christianity is supposed to be a mournful religion, least of all Christians. Joy is an essential part of the Christian life. It is part of the fruit of the spirit. We are created to delight in God and his works. Because he is marvelous and so is what he does. The words the Bible uses for joy also mean mirth, gladness, cheerfulness, to shine and to spring about. What reason have we for joy? There is the world, its beauty, its vastness, its variety, its seemingly infinite detail. There are people, created in God’s image. There is the fact that when we ruined it all, God did not give up on us but laid the groundwork for his most marvelous work yet: entering his own creation and recreating it from the inside out. And he does it even though it costs him dearly. Which shows us how much he loves us. Isn’t that a reason to jump for joy? And so the form the spirit of joy takes at Christmas is that of the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Finally, what form does the spirit of hope take that first Christmas? The hope of the oppressed Jews was God’s promised Messiah, his anointed prophet, priest and king. They always remembered their history as slaves in Egypt. They remembered how God sent Moses to free them. They remembered when the Philistines attacked and dominated them in their own land. They remembered how God sent David, their king, to push back the Philistines. They remembered their exile to Babylon hundreds of years later. They remember how God anointed Cyrus the Persian to defeat the Babylonians and let them return home. Now they were once again subjects of an oppressive empire. They looked back at how God had freed them from Egypt and then from Babylon, and they hoped God would free them again as he had in the past.
Hope, it has been said, is the future tense of faith. It is, like faith, not blind but rooted in the past. We trust those who have been faithful to us in the past. So the Jews trusted that God would, as in the past, come through for them. And he did, but not by sending just another leader or king. He sent his son. He is the Anointed, in Hebrew “Messiah,” in Greek “Christ.” But he wasn’t going to save just the Jews from just another empire. He would save all people from what really keeps us from being free--our bad habits, our self-destructive ways, our darkest desires and greatest fears--our sins. We, not others, are our own worst enemies. So God anointed and sent his son to do what we could not--to bury our sins and give us new life.
The job is not yet finished. Jesus won the major victory but there’s still mopping up to be done. Jesus emancipated the slaves but we must proclaim it. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom but we must people it. The kingdom won’t be complete until the king returns to claim his throne. And so we too hope for his coming, this time with all the glory he shunned the first time.
So the form the spirit of hope took that first Christmas was the promised one, the savior, Jesus Christ.
Throughout this, I have been using the word “spirit” in the colloquial sense, meaning the essence of something. But in this context, it means more. God’s Holy Spirit transcends metaphor. He is the power of God that holds the universe together and keeps it going and inspires us. He is literally the Spirit of Christmas, that ineffable presence of God, that filled Jesus and empowered him and whom Jesus promised to those who follow him. As from one flame one can light every lamp and candle in a house or church, so he can purify the souls, illumine the minds, and set on fire the hearts of all who open them to him. As he was in Jesus, he is in us who obey his word and walk in his ways. And he wishes us to embody Christ not once a year, but every day in every encounter with every person. And if we do not quench his activity, we will find in us the source of love and giving and peace and joy and hope, and in our fellow human beings, a family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us children of our Heavenly Father.