The Place Called Christmas
First United Presbyterian Church
“The Place Called Christmas”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 24, 2017, 7PM
There’s this place called Christmas where life is peaceful, merry, bright. A mantra of season’s greetings, familiar scriptures and carols fill the air. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. No one fights about it. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Even Linus knows it by heart. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
Calm and bright it is in this place called Christmas, where candles flicker to warm the darkness and soft blankets enfold us as hot cocoa steams from sturdy mugs in our hands. Halls are decked and logs crackle on the fire. Brightly wrapped packages rest on a blanket of pine needles falling like snow onto the carpet. Family recipes, passed down through generations, are lovingly prepared and fill us with joy and gratitude.
We live in this place called Christmas for different periods of time. The gates seem to open earlier and earlier each year. Some people take those Christmas in July sales so seriously that they give up on the rest of summer, skip past fall, and move right into Christmas for six months of the year. Others wait until the carols start playing on the radio at the beginning of November. The place really starts getting crowded after Thanksgiving, when parades and light shows and sales beckon us to move in. Some folks aren’t quite able to pick up and move until a few weeks into December, and the truly unfortunate get only a day or two in this lovely place. And there are those who are left out of it entirely, poor folks.
In order to make this place called Christmas possible, however, there are KEEP OUT signs posted at every entrance. A great wall encircles the place with NO TRESPASSING warnings hanging on it at intervals. Communication to the outside world is cut off completely. Admittance is prohibited for anything and everything that might mar in even the slightest way this place where “tree tops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
And what, exactly, are we so afraid will break into this place called Christmas, this momentary paradise? Why, life, of course. We stand guard around this place called Christmas to ward off our own lives. For however long we can manage to live in that place called Christmas, we can ignore, put off, and generally avoid the dull, unpleasant, exhausting, and sometimes tragic existence that is our every day reality.
We turn off our news feeds and stop responding to emails. We quit opening any mail that isn’t clearly a Christmas card, especially avoiding the bills and other incessant requests for money. We dodge the grumpy woman who delivers the mail and tell ourselves we’ll visit the relatives we don’t get along with after the holidays are over. We want the world and its problems to leave us alone so we can enjoy what little time we have in that place called Christmas.
This is not to say that the world’s ugliness and brokenness is completely banned from Christmas. Why, it wouldn’t be Christmas if we couldn’t feel good about helping those in need, which would be impossible if there were no people in need of our help. So we grant admission to the people with problems we think we can fix. The capital-P Poor, the capital-H Hungry and Homeless. Not people so much as categories. We consume good will toward others as ravenously as the toys and tech and other gifts we wrap up in reindeer paper. The problems of the world are packaged up for us, and our giving spirit adds ribbons and bows.
We all know that we can only rent a spot in this place called Christmas. It is costly, and few people can afford to live there for long. Sooner or later, we’ll have to move back out into that place called “real life,” where nothing is peaceful, merriment seems fake, and the world is dark and cold.
Even those who are generally happy with their lives find their enjoyment of it dampened by the stark contrast between their typical existence and their brief stay in that place called Christmas. And for those who are dissatisfied with life or depressed, having to move away from Christmas is almost intolerable. We cling to the doorposts of that place called Christmas, refusing to take down the lights and the tree, extending the shopping spree with gift cards and returns, watching our favorite Christmas movies well into February.
But eventually, we must all move out, back into those lives we’ve held at bay for months, or weeks, or perhaps only a few hours. The candles are extinguished. The reindeer paper ripped up and thrown away. The lights and garlands stripped from the doorways and banisters.
Deflated, we return to work, to school, to volunteering. We shake our heads at the news of the day. We respond to our inbox full of emails. We open the bills and pay them, if we can. And we begin counting the days until we can escape it once again, move back into that place called Christmas.
But tonight, I have good news for us all. Good news of great joy for all the people, as the angel said.
While we may all be enjoying our stay in Christmas, and dreading having to leave it, the secret truth is this: Jesus was not born in that place called Christmas. He was not born in boxes and bows, tinsel and lights. There was no peace on earth, no calm and silence when Jesus was born and Christmas began.
“The world is the manger,” Frederick Buechner writes. And that’s where Jesus was born. Jesus was born into the everyday life of two poor, homeless teenagers, into the everyday life of migrant shepherds living on the edge of town. Jesus was born into a greedy empire with crippling taxes. Jesus was born into disease and hunger. Jesus was not born into that place called Christmas. He was born into the world. “The world is the manger.”
All of us good, church-going Christians know this, of course, when we let ourselves think about it. But most of us still manage to avoid experiencing it in our lives. That place called Christmas is so dazzling and alluring that we put all our hope for joy and fulfillment into our brief stay in that luxurious location in our year.
But the truly fortunate among us have found ourselves, like Buechner’s clergyman, suddenly, surprisingly, in the manger. As we wash the car or babysit the grandkids, we realize we’re in the manger. As we greet the store clerk or commute to work, we realize we’re in the manger. As we sit in the too-quiet house in the evening or listen to our co-workers’ complaining, we realize we’re in the manger.
How do we know? It’s hard to say. It’s usually just a momentary thing, an awareness that there is something true and right and hopeful and loving that is both present in this place and greater than it. But we know in our hearts that Christmas has arrived, Jesus has been born, and is alive, in this place. Not in an idealized world blanketed with snow and twinkling with lights. Jesus is here, in the noise and in the quiet, in the mess and discomfort and grief and anger. And once that realization is made, we’re never completely comfortable moving back to that place we call Christmas, that contrived existence of merry and bright.
I truly hope we all enjoy our stay in that place called Christmas. It is a place of peace and joy and hope. It’s a place I wish we all could stay for as long as we like.
But when we move out, as we all must eventually, my greater hope is that we will experience Christmas in all the other places of our lives. I hope that we find ourselves in the manger again and again, that we experience Christ born into the world as it really is, and not as we contrive it to be.
Because then we will have arrived in a Christmas that never ends. We can live there always. It won’t depend on finding the perfect gift or getting along with our relatives. It won’t need snow or reindeer paper. We will be in Christmas, all year long, knowing Jesus is God with us, everywhere and at all times. That is the Christmas I wish for us all. Amen.