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Christmas Eve Homily

Sermon – 12/24/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

There has been more discussion than usual this year on keeping “Christ” in “Christmas.”  On the one hand, among all the problems we face in the world, surely there are more important things than the names we use for our holidays.  On the other, I am thrilled by much of what I hear and read as not just the name but the meaning of Christmas is being debated on the editorial pages of our newspapers and magazines.

I consider it a very good thing, for instance, to read in Newsweek this insight from columnist Anna Quindlen:

"For most truly religious people, observing the feast is not about shouting “Merry Christmas” at passerby to show that you believe even if they do not, … It is an interior process of considering the lessons the child in the manger would teach once grown.  So if people are really worried about keeping Christ in Christmas, they might personally exhibit tolerance and charity, kindness and generosity.”  Amen!

When we can read that kind of theological depth in a secular news magazine, I don’t think we need to worry too much about a few misguided attempts to take religion out of public life or misunderstood attempts to make public holidays more inclusive of other religions.  Heck, even the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel called me to wish me a “Merry Christmas”!

So I encourage all God-fearing Christian people to relax.  I really do not think that calling an office party or a holiday concert “Christmas” is going to hasten the coming of the Savior of the world.  If observing the birth of Jesus with an annual holiday is so important, why is it never mentioned by the Gospels of Mark and John or the letters of Paul?  Why did Christmas not become an annual celebration until several centuries after the event?

Matthew, of course, is one of the only two sources we have for the Christmas story.  Matthew reveals the meaning of the first Christmas with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,  and they shall name him Emmanuel,”  which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)  In other words, the critical issue for people of faith is not when or how we celebrate, but that we see in this birth, the presence of God with us, with humanity.

This is the meaning of Christmas.  So when we talk about putting Christ back in Christmas, what we really are saying is that we need to put God back into the world, to make God present among us once again, which, of course, is not for us to do.  We can no more put God in the world than we can put blue into the sky or water into rain.  God already is present in the world.  Besides, God is not ours to put anywhere. What we can do is find God in the world, affirm that God is indeed with us.  We can point to those places where God is tangible, present among us.

I lived for three years in Germany, as many of you know, and spent a good deal of time dealing with the impact of Nazism, the Holocaust and the struggles of the church during that dark period of German history.  That experience had a big impact on how I view the world and current events.

It was in Berlin 25 years ago that I first learned that German soldiers, first in WWI, wore “Gott mit uns” or “God with us” on their belt buckles.  That is, of course, the hope of soldiers everywhere, regardless of nationality, that God is on their side.  It was Abraham Lincoln, however, who pointed out to us in the aftermath of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address that those who read the same Bible and prayed to the same God each invoked God’s aid against the other and thereby revealed the folly of such claims in war.

But as I read and hear stories of another war-torn land far from our shores—stories of soldiers singing Christmas carols in Baghdad palaces, of Iraqi Christians afraid to observe Christmas themselves, of families receiving devastating news of loved ones lost—I see another meaning to the German belt buckles which I do want to affirm.  It came to me in our Spiritual Formation Group when one of our members said something that caused me to look up the German version of Matthew.  Sure enough, in German, the translation of Immanuel is “Gott mit uns.”

Where I always took that to mean that God is on our side and not yours, I suddenly realized that it can also simply mean, “God goes with us, wherever we go".  To protect us, yes, and maybe even fight for us, but also to comfort us, to console us, to affirm us and to challenge us.  God with us is something we should all carry on our belt buckles, our label pins, our watches and the souls of our feet.  Not as some kind of smug assurance that we have God and others do not, but as a reminder that wherever we go, we take God with us.

When we go to the hospital, God is with us. 

When we walk down that dark street, God is with us. 

When we go into that business meeting, God is with us. 

When we take that test at school, God is with us.  When we bring a new child into the world, God is with us. 

When we hold the hand of a dying loved one, God is with us.  And yes, when we go to war, God is with us.

But if God is with us, then God is also with the person on the other side.  If God is with those innocent victims of 9/11 killed by the terrorists, then God is with the innocent victims killed by our bombs and bullets.  If God is with our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, then God is with the prisoners beaten by the same.  For these, too, are those for whom Christ was born and for whom Christ died.

It was the Christmas after Abraham Lincoln was killed with the echoes of the last gunshot of that terrible war still ringing in his ears that the Reverend Phillip Brooks rode into Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and wrote of the hopes and fears of all the years met in O Little Town of Bethlehem.  Brooks concluded his carol, now sung, if no longer in schools, certainly in Christian communities and around the world, with these words:  “O come to us, abide with us, our God Immanuel.” 

God with us.  This is the meaning of Christmas that no one can take away, and when taken to heart, changes us and our world, fulfilling the promise of angels of peace on earth and goodwill to all.


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