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What Christmas Means to Me


John 1:14

I: — It means a rescue operation, a salvage operation. Salvation (the unique work of the saviour) is a salvage operation.

One week after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took their infant son to the temple to have him circumcised. There they met Simeon, an aged man who had waited years to see God’s Messiah. With a cry that relieved decades of aching longing Simeon took the baby in his arms and exclaimed, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Peace? Did Simeon mean that at last he had peace in his heart, peace of mind? No doubt he meant that too, but that wasn’t what he meant primarily when he cried, “Peace! At last!”

You see, Simeon was an Israelite. In the Hebrew language “peace” is a synonym for “salvation”. “Peace” means God’s definitive reversal of the distortion, disfigurement and distress which curse the world on account of sin and evil.

Years later, in the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus healed a menorrhagic woman. When he had identified her in the crowd he said, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.” He meant, “Through your faith in me God’s salvation has become effective in you; now you step ahead in the reality of your salvation; you walk in it; you live out of it for the rest of your life.”

When Simeon lifted up the week-old Jesus and cried, “Lettest now thy servant depart in peace” he added, “for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…light for revelation to Gentiles.”

Why does he speak of the Gentiles? Plainly Simeon thought that prior to the advent of Jesus Christ Gentiles were “in the dark” with respect to God. The light that Jesus Christ is, said Simeon, alone could save us Gentiles who know nothing of the Holy One of Israel. Was Simeon correct? Years later Paul would describe Gentiles as “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Apart from him who is the Christmas gift are we Gentiles Godless and our predicament hopeless? Paul assumed this to be unarguably obvious!

Two weeks ago the University of Toronto conferred an honourary doctorate on Isaiah Berlin, professor at Oxford University. Isaiah Berlin is regarded as one of the finest scholars of humanist conviction anywhere in the world. Multilingual, philosophically erudite, possessed of a remarkable grasp of history, he is intellectually awesome. In his address to the university he detailed the undeniable dark side of human history. While humankind had always been prone to warfare (with the huge loss of life unavoidable in war), it was Napoleon who first developed large-scale slaughter, large-scale in that the slaughter spread vastly farther than battlefield combatants. Then Isaiah Berlin pointed out that the 20th century was unparalleled for slaughter on an even greater scale: the Stalinist purges (not to mention the people Marxism has slain wherever Marxism has been ascendant), the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and so on. It is the 20th century that has provided conclusive proof of what the previous centuries suggested to be the state of the human heart. As Berlin spoke, making his case stronger by the moment, the weight of his cumulative argument seemed on the point of convincing everyone that humankind of itself could never reverse its history of rapacity and cruelty. At precisely this moment (according to the Globe and Mail write-up) Berlin turned 180 degrees and announced, without any justification at all, that a glorious new day was just around the corner. History, to this point bleak beyond imagining, would suddenly reverse its course in the 21st century. Humankind was on the cusp of generating a genuinely new future for itself, said Berlin, and his only regret was that he, an old man now, would not live long enough to see us do finally what we had never been able to do to this point!

I was stunned. Berlin’s intellect is far greater than mine. Nevertheless, he exemplifies the point scripture makes over and over: a major consequence of our sinnership is blindness — blindness to truth, blindness to reality, blindness to the nature of sin and the necessity of the saviour. The worst aspect of blindness, of course, is blindness to our blindness; ignorance of our ignorance; insensitivity to our spiritual insensitivity. In a word, the worst consequence of our condition is utter unawareness of our condition and its consequences.

Then Paul was correct, wasn’t he! Humankind is Godless and its predicament is hopeless!

Except that the saviour of humankind that human history cannot generate; this saviour has been given to us. It is the fact of the gift that made Simeon’s heart sing. The fact of the gift means that humankind doesn’t have to remain Godless; its predicament doesn’t have to remain hopeless! What we must crave to do is receive the gift, never spurning it, never trifling with it, never pretending, along with Professor Berlin, that no such gift is needed even though the cumulative evidence is that such a gift — God’s own rescue — is our only hope.

I rejoice that this gift does not come to us with the impersonal label “humankind” written on it, as though it were for everyone in general but no one in particular. Rather I rejoice that it comes with my name on it. As often as I rejoice in this I recall the verse from the Hebrew bible — “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands, says the Lord”. And then I think of the four-line ditty I learned as a child:

My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity cannot erase.
Impressed on his heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace.

I rejoice that the gift with my name on it has come to me in such a manner as to impel me to own the gift, cherish the gift, glory in the gift. For I too can say with Simeon, “Peace! From the prince of Peace himself! Immanuel: ‘God-with-us'”. And because of “God-with-us”, I with God eternally.

II: — Christmas means something more to me. It means that the saved life I have been given in Christ I must henceforth live and can live. A minute ago I referred to Christ’s saying to the healed menorrhagic woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” He meant, “Your faith has immersed you in the salvation of God; now you live out of that salvation, live from it, for the rest of your life.” What she had been given in Christ she was obliged to live and — most importantly — could live.

When the woman caught in the very act of adultery was brought to Jesus he said to her, “I don’t condemn you; now you see to it that you never do this again.” What she had been given in Christ she was obliged to live and could live.

When the paralyzed man was brought to Jesus he said to him, “Your sins are forgiven; take up your bed and walk.” Our Lord didn’t mean, “Walk around, go for a stroll, meander, try a little sightseeing.” “Walk”, rather, is the commonest metaphor in the Hebrew bible for the obedience God requires of his people. In light of what God’s salvation, God’s people can walk as he requires them to walk.

When Jesus says to three different people on three different occasions, “Go in peace”, “See to it that you never do this again”, “Start walking and never stop”; when our Lord says these he is saying exactly the same thing to all three. What the salvaged are supposed to do the salvaged can do.

Christmas celebrates the Incarnation. The Incarnation is God himself living among us under the conditions of our existence. The Incarnation is therefore God himself living our difficulties, our disappointments, our distresses. The book of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”; he has forged a way through life’s thickets ahead of us. We don’t have to forge a way through the thicket; we need only follow him on the path he has forged for us. But this we must do, and by his grace this we can do.

Many years after Christmas, when our Lord was full-grown and had embarked on his public ministry, he told his followers that they were light and salt. Obviously we are not light in exactly the same sense that Jesus Christ is. He is the light of the world; our vocation is to shine with his light so as to reflect it into nooks and crannies where life unfolds for us.

Jesus also insisted that his followers are salt. Salt, in the Hebrew bible, is the symbol of God’s covenant with his creation. His covenant is his promise that he will never fail us or forsake us, never quit on us, never give up in disgust or despair, however angry with us he might be for a season. Christians are to be the living sign that God has not abandoned his creation and will not abandon it.

We are to be such a sign. Impossible? Except that our Lord has pioneered this for us already. We need only follow him on the proof-path. Because the salvager has been there ahead of us, we the salvaged must follow him and we can.

III: — Christmas means one thing more to me. It means that the ordinary is fraught with eternal significance. The apostle John speaks of the Incarnation as the Word becoming flesh. He means more than the fact that the self-utterance of God clothed itself in a human body: bones, blood, skin, hair, teeth. He means that the Word immersed itself in every aspect of our existence, from employment problems to temptation to fun-time partying to betrayal to exhilaration to grief to laughter to pain. None of it is foreign to God.

We must never forget that our Lord was born to ordinary parents, grew up in an ordinary town (Nazareth being a generic town like North Bay or Moose Jaw); he worked at an ordinary trade and ate ordinary food. He was so ordinary as not to be noteworthy; there is virtually no mention of him in the literature outside the New Testament. He was one more itinerant preacher of one more Messianic sect handled one more time in the manner Roman security guards were so good at. Yet he was also the sole, sovereign Son of God whose coming among us is the occasion of God’s most intimate presence, God’s most effective mercy, God’s unique opportunity.

Since life is 98% ordinary, it is in the ordinary moments of life that we are going to have serve God. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, the dramatic, we should understand that we are salt and light not particularly when we try to be or are challenged to be; if we are salt and light at all then we are salt and light all the time.

Jesus went to a wedding, and there was given opportunity to attest the mission of his Father. After the wedding he went to a funeral, and opportunity was given him for a different ministry. On his way to the next village a distraught parent told him of a daughter’s sickness; while he was sorting out this development someone who didn’t like him accosted him. It was all so very ordinary — and therefore it was all the opportunity of a particular word and deed and blessing and comfort.

The child in front of us in the variety store is crying because her mother has sent her to the store for a loaf of bread the child has lost her money. Two teenagers in front of us are maliciously teasing an elderly man in Erin Mills Town Centre. The stranger in the bed beside the person we have gone to see in the hospital calls out to us. Our spouse arrives home with horrendous headache and hair-trigger nerves on account of a sneak attack at work when she never expected it and therefore could not protect herself against it.

This is where we live. Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation, reminds us that this is where God lives too. Then there is opportunity for discernment and service and intercession and courage right here. Depending on the situation there is opportunity (and need) for ironfast inflexibility or for the gentlest accommodation.

I am moved every time I recall a story of St. Francis of Assisi. An eager, enthusiastic novice among the friars told Francis that day-to-day existence with brothers in the order was suffocatingly ordinary. The two of them should move out into the wider world and bear witness to Jesus Christ. Francis agreed that this was a good idea. “But first let’s first walk through the city of Assisi from end to end”, insisted the older man. The two fellows did nothing more than walk through the city. When they had traversed it the impatient novice, puzzled now, turned to Francis and remarked quizzically, “But I thought we were going to testify to our Lord!” “We just did”, replied Francis quietly, “we just did.”

Life consists of the ordinary punctuated by the extraordinary. Punctuation marks are found relatively infrequently, aren’t they? I have yet to see a sentence that had more punctuation marks than words! Punctuation marks may help us read a sentence but they don’t make up the sentence. And strictly speaking, punctuation marks are not even necessary. (Something as important as a telegram, after all, has no punctuation marks.)

It is a sign of spiritual maturity when we understand that the ordinary is the vehicle of the eternal; it is a sign of spiritual alertness when, from time-to-time, we see how this has occurred. It is a sign of faithfulness when we live day-by-day in the certainty that there is no ordinary moment that God doesn’t grace, and therefore there is no ordinary moment that is finally insignificant.

Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. Incarnation — the living word and will and way of God becoming flesh of our flesh in our midst; Incarnation is the foundation of everything pertaining to the Christian faith.

Incarnation means a salvage operation that is nothing less than the salvation of God.

Incarnation means that the salvaged life God grants us through our faith in Jesus Christ is a life we must live and can live, since our Lord has pioneered it for us.

Incarnation means that the ordinary is the vehicle of God’s summons to us, as well as the occasion of our obedience to him through service to others.

This is what Christmas means to me.

Victor A. Shepherd
December 1994