Merry Christmas! When we hear these words, I suspect most of us have images of holiday merriment – of feasting, friends, family, singing carols, drinking some eggnog, giving and receiving presents. A few days ago, some of us rang bells for the Salvation Army’s Christmas Appeal. We greeted people with Merry Christmas and were greeted in return. While these connotations are good, there is one which is more excellent – it is connected with love, the more “excellent way,” of which the Apostle Paul speaks. Christmas celebrates God’s love for us.
We boldly proclaim this love in the Eucharistic Prayer: “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all” (BCP, p. 362).
In our reading from Titus, Paul stresses the significance of Jesus’ birth in these words: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2.11a; NRSV). Paul had led Titus, a gentile, to Christ. Paul requested that he remain on the island of Crete, for the purpose, as Paul puts it, “of putting in order what remained to be done” (Titus 1.5; NRSV) and appointing elders in every town. Paul speaks very disparagingly of the Cretans: “Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1.15b-16; NRSV).
Having noted their condition, Paul then declares, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Jesus has come, bringing salvation to all who choose to accept it. In his life, Jesus has shown us how “to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2.12-13; NRSV). Paul then reminds Titus that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2. 14; NRSV). Jesus has come that we might have life and live it abundantly.
Jesus is born! This truth was first proclaimed to a group of outcasts, the lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. The angel, after telling the shepherds not to be afraid (the first duty of angels when interacting with mortals), declared, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah” (Luke 2.10-11; NRSV). This is the gospel, the good news! After telling the shepherds what to look for, the angel was joined by a heavenly host which was praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2.14; NRSV). Here is the true meaning of “Merry Christmas”! There is cause for rejoicing!
The shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem. Upon finding Mary and Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger, they shared what they had experienced. Those who heard their story were amazed. Luke then tells us, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The shepherds then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2.19-20; NRSV).
Jesus was born in a manger. Gil Bailie (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/xmas/) has raised some questions related to the deeper significance of this fact. He notes that a manger is “a feeding trough, a place where animals come to eat.” Here they are nourished and fed. The shepherds found Jesus in the manger, an eating place. Near the end of the Gospel of Luke, the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus come to recognize Jesus at an eating place, in the breaking of the bread. As they journeyed, they were also fed and nourished through God’s word. Bailie raises the question, “Where do you find Jesus?”
Just as Mary pondered what the shepherds shared, we need to ponder this question: Where do we find Jesus? I think there are several answers to this question, but as baptized believers, we always find Jesus in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist. Here, at the table, Jesus invites us to eat, to find fellowship with him and with one another, to be strengthened for our journey. There is a reason for the passing of the peace after confession and prior to communion. Here is the opportunity to put forgiveness into action, to seek out someone we have wronged, or who has wronged us, or to simply extend God’s peace to those around us. If we are going to fellowship at the table, it is only fitting that our hearts be prepared.
Throughout the history of the Church, we have looked upon the altar as a place of sacrifice. A common interpretation that still sneaks its way into the liturgy is that an angry and wrathful God demanded a sacrifice for sin. This picture has held us captive for far too long. What if God is a God of immense love as opposed to a God of wrath and punishment? What if God would have us understand the possibility of a new way of life as modeled through Jesus Christ? What if God’s real intent is that we join in the table of fellowship and communion?
After the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38; NRSV). Mary permitted God to take upon God’s-self human flesh, to live and dwell among us. She gave flesh to God’s Word. How do you give flesh to God’s Word? How do you enflesh and proclaim God’s love? May you share in the fellowship of God’s love. Doing so makes for a truly Merry Christmas.