Our cultural orthodoxy proclaims Christmas is for children. Which seems to suggest that there is nothing grownups may hope for any longer, nothing to hold us rapt and marveling. Let the children be expectant and excited; we are too old, too serious, too cynical to hope for anything new. Let the children’s eyes go wide and gape at the bright light; we are too grownup to be surprised by wonder.
But children don’t need Christmas. They already have it. Christmas is their natural habitat. They believe willingly, trustingly. Their lives are filled with wonder. Their imagination is fertile. Their hopes are naturally boundless. They are not people who live in darkness, people who live in fear, people who have forgotten how to hope, to trust.
Someone defined a grownup as any person who could sit in church on Christmas Eve without squirming with excitement thinking of tomorrow. A grownup is a person who can listen to a dreary sermon without thoughts drifting to the tree, with that big package engirdled by a red bow, or the little green one with the fascinating rattle. A grownup is a serious, responsible person, thinking, during the sermon, what time should I put the roast in the oven tomorrow?
The good news is that Christmas is for grownups. As grownups we no longer find magic and hear mystery in stories of Rudolf and Santa and barnyard animals receiving the gift of speech so that they can sing praises to God. Grownups need the real thing. Grownups in Newtown, Connecticut, grownups in our embattled city of Detroit, grownups in nursing homes, grownups serving in Afghanistan – we need the real thing, not its pretty reflections. Yes, God be praised, Christmas is for grownups.
We need, once again, this most astonishing story of a man, Joseph, and his pregnant bride, Mary, who left their home In Nazareth and traveled to the town of his ancestors, a place called Bethlehem. It was when Quirinius was governor of Syria. While they were there the baby was born, a little boy. The mother wrapped her baby up and laid him in the feed trough of a stable, because there was nowhere else for them to stay.
At the same time, and not far away, there were shepherds watching their flocks in the night. An angel – what a marvelous thing! – appeared to them and told them, “Do not be afraid. I have good news to tell you, good news for you and for everyone. Tonight a savior has been born. All that God intended from the very beginning has been born in Bethlehem. Here’s how you will know: you will find the baby wrapped up, lying in a feed trough.”
This story calls us back, back to our roots in the soil, our roots in God, our roots in worship. It calls us back to a sense of wonder we thought we had outgrown. Back to an awareness of mystery we long-since thought we had explained away. The story calls us back to an expectancy we have feared to trust. It calls us to more than we dare hope for. It comes to us as a gift at Christmas, and this gift is what makes Christmas so different for grownups.
Children begin with the wonder, the expectancy, the imagination. A child finds a microscope under the Christmas tree, and her vision of the world is forever magnified. Another child finds a bicycle, and the size of his world expands beyond his immediate neighborhood, with a new world to explore and make his own. Another unwraps a book with tales of far-away places. There will be presents under the tree tonight that will bring unshakable joy to children tomorrow and will change their lives, expand their worlds.
To be grownup is to know that however pleased you will be with whatever you find under the tree, you know it will not bring such unshakable joy, it will not make your life much different. To be a grownup is to know that what you really want, what you really need, cannot be wrapped in a box and put under a tree.
You cannot put a bow on a sense of meaning and purpose and place in life. Warmth of caring and being cared for cannot be slipped into a stocking. Grownups know, oh we know so well, that real peace, real meaning, real satisfaction, real comfort do not wait under trees. Among the wonderful, lovingly made or thoughtfully purchased new things, there will not be anything that will utterly transform our lives to make them fresh and abundant.
We live in a broken world, a world of heartache and pain and poverty and individualism and lack of compassion, a world of too many automatic weapons and inadequate gun laws, a world littered with broken hopes and shattered dreams. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds lived in such a world. Isaiah speaks of the “people who lived in darkness.” The angels tell the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” To people who lived in fear as we do, the angel says, DO NOT BE AFRAID. What does it mean that the savior is born? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The message of the angels is that peace and joy and hope are poured out on everyone, that this is how God intends for God’s people to live, and that all that God intended from the beginning is given birth on this night of mystery. God brings – the Gift – earth-shaking, life-transforming joy to birth at Christmas. This we discover as we open to the mystery, as we approach this night with wonder. Anything can happen. Anything.
Yet Jesus the Christ has no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Jesus, the light of the world, shines in the darkness, and commissions us, the Body of Christ, to carry the torch high, to be the light of Christ in and to a dark world.
Silent night, holy night. A night of mystery and magic. A night when reindeer may fly – and we may mount up with wings as eagles, and run and not be weary, a night to reach out to one another in warmth and love.
This night of magic is the night when the funny looking reindeer is picked to lead the team, a night when the Lord of all creation is a squalling infant in a stable, a night when we are adopted as God’s very own children.
Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, in his old age was asked what he believed to be the bare bones essence of Christianity. And the old man, in a faltering voice, said “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Silent night, holy night. The angel says “Do not be afraid. I have good news to tell you, good news for you and for everyone. Tonight a savior has been born.”
Reverend Rollie Norris (retired)
Saint Mark’s, Newport and Detroit