Christmas: The day your heart became Bethlehem

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016 — St. Bartholomew’s, Nashville.

The audio is available here.

Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2016)

  • First reading
    • Isaiah 9:2-7
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 96
  • Second reading
    • Titus 2:11-14
  • Gospel
    • Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Isa. 9:6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

This night, December 24th, around the world women and men gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus that occurred over two thousand years ago in the town of Bethlehem. For those of us in the northern hemisphere it is always a dark and usually a cold night. Even in Bethlehem this week the temperatures at night have been just barely above 40º. It is fitting that the light of the world should enter during our darkest days.

His coming was the event that the prophets foretold, angels declared, and shepherds witnessed. To us “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” And so we celebrate and join the angels is singing, 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Today we celebrate that God has remembered his people and his promises, he has sent the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring salvation, hope, peace, and joy, to all the world!

This is a time of joy and celebration! And yet still bloggers keep watch over their stats by night and ask, was Jesus really born on this night? Every year, without fail, some wag writes that whatever we know about Jesus’ birth “It probably wasn’t on December 25th.” That was the sub-title of last year’s Time magazine article. As a scholar of early Judaism I am drawn to these sorts of discussions and debates. It is true that our Gospel accounts share very few precise details about Jesus’ birth. For example, they do not even give us a clear statement of the year in which Jesus was born. We are told it was during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, “during the time of King Herod,” and under the governorship of Quirinius, but that covers a broad swathe possible years. Even the season of the year is vague in the accounts of Luke and Matthew.

Some scholars will point out that the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night” which might seem inconsistent with the deep winter months. Hardly conclusive evidence that it was spring, to be sure, but the winter would also seem a dangerous time of year for Joseph and a very pregnant Mary to make such a journey. And so on. There are various points of debate and the result is that many will say that Jesus was not born in December and their blog will get a spike in hits and their stats will go up. The truth is we simply don’t know when Jesus was born. We don’t know the precise year, month, or day. The fact is, he was born.

All this vagary about the actual date of Christ’s birth is one of the reasons why for the first several centuries the Christian church did not have a specific festival for the Nativity of Jesus. The “high holidays” of early Christianity were (and should remain so today) Good Friday and Easter. When Jesus was born is not nearly as important as why Jesus was born. He is Emmanuel, God with us, sent to earth as a human so that he might live and die as one of us for the forgiveness of our sins. The early church knew and understood this and so debates about the date of Jesus’ birth remained largely academic. (As has this sermon so far, but bear with me.)

It is not until the time of Constantine in the 4th century (336 CE) that we first find December 25th being granted official status. Prior to that, dates from November to April and everything in between had been suggested, but not, curiously enough, December 25th.[1] St. Augustine, who lived in the late 4th and into the 5th century, advocated for the December date, coinciding with the shortest days of the year, the winter solstice, saying,

“Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”[2]

There are debates as to how exactly the church ended up with the 25th of December as the date of Jesus’ birth. Ancient authorities calculated that Jesus’ crucifixion was on March 25th and it was thought that his conception and death were on the same day. Nine months after March 25th is December 25th, thus the date of Jesus’ birth.

Modern critics will point out that, as St. Augustine did, that this date is close to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and a day observed by various pagan traditions.[3] The assumption by many  is that Christians appropriated the pagan festivals and simply dedicated it to the birth of Jesus. On balance I think the earlier argument is likely what led to the choice of December 25th. Regardless of how we ended up at this date, there is no doubt that the manner in which we celebrate Christmas today has a number of formerly pagan elements. Our beautiful Christmas tree, for example, is directly descended from Druidic practices.

So, is it wrong that we should celebrate the birth of Jesus in this way or on this day? No, not at all. But I do think that there are two lessons for us in how we have arrived at this point. The first is a lesson in sanctification and the second is about celebration.

Whether it is the date or the way in which we celebrate Christmas, over the centuries the church has adopted, adapted, and appropriated various dates, traditions, and elements of other cultures. This was not accidental, but rather quite intentional. Think of it in this way, when we seek to share the Gospel with people in another country where they do not speak English, do we simply SAY THE WORDS VERY LOUDLY? Or do we translate them into their own language? And in so doing, we often need to adopt different metaphors that will be understood in a new context. For example, wine and bread were staples, fundamental elements of sustenance in the ancient Mediterranean and so are central to our Eucharist as we remember Christ’s Last Supper and Sacrifice. In West Africa, while explaining the fundamental nature of these elements, a missionary might rightly replace those elements with Saabu instead of bread and, I am reliably informed, Fanta instead of wine.

When the earliest missionaries moved out from the Mediterranean they encountered all sorts of religious peoples who had festivals and sites that were holy to them. Pope Gregory, in writing to Abbot Mellitus and St. Augustine of Canterbury (601 CE) encouraged them not to eliminate these festivals and sites completely, but rather to sanctify them to the living and one true God.

“…the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. …that they [may] be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.”

Pope Gregory’s rationale is simple, “because the one who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.”

Some of you know of my own love for 80s contemporary Christian music. Like most culture of the 80s, it was not always of the highest quality, but it was an important part of some of the most formative years of my life. Christian artists then and now come under criticism for seeming to mimic or copy other contemporary music. But I wonder how many people realize that all American pop music has its roots in the music of the church? Rockabilly, MoTown, the Blues, they all came out of the church. We all borrow, adapt, and adopt culture, language, and expression all the time. The issue is intent.

Why are we gathered here tonight? Why do we have the decorations of red on a green Christmas tree? Why do we share presents? If we do it because…well, we just do it, then it is nothing more than tradition and, at worst, paganism. BUT if we do it because we are setting aside this time to worship God, to thank him for the gift of his Son and the new life that comes only through Him, then it is, as Pope Gregory said, in the service of the true God.

This is the process of sanctification. When we intentionally aside a specific time, ceremony, clothing, and traditions to honor and worship God then  they have been sanctified, made holy. Today is no longer December 24th it is the Eve of the Mass of Christ’s Birth. Tomorrow is not December 25th, or the festival of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus, it is the Mass, the celebration of Christ’s Birth.

Why? Because we, along with millions of Christians throughout history and around the world have set aside this time to remember the amazing and fearful news that God has become human, that the Savior of the World was born, and his birth marked the beginning of our sanctification. We have now been set apart for God. As Peter said,

1Pet. 2:9  … you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

So we gather in the darkness on one of the longest nights of the year to proclaim that God’s child has been born and that “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

But it doesn’t have to be December 25th. It could be November 17th or May 30th, it could be January 16th or August 14th. Because Christmas is the day that Christ is born in us. The historical fact is that Jesus was born during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the time of King Herod. The spiritual truth is that he continues to live in us today.

When was Christ born in you? When was it that you realized that this historical figure was also the Son of God who died for you and in so doing bought and brought you eternal life? The day when your heart became Bethlehem, that is Christmas.

If that hasn’t happened yet, know that God works with us “just as we are.” We do not need to get to the top of a mountain in a single leap. We take it step by step. Allow this old temple to be swept clean by God, sanctified by Him and for Him, and Christ will be born in you this night.

As I was preparing this sermon and knew that this was the message I needed to share, a song came on that I had never heard before. It was by an artist I had known for years, one of those 80s CCM artists I mentioned earlier, but the album was new, I had just downloaded it. It is by Terry Scott Taylor (of Daniel Amos fame) and it is called, “May I Be Your Bethlehem.” When I heard this song it seemed a fitting, closing prayer.

Most high and holy lord was born so meek and mild
God with us, Emmanuel, became a little child
Please Holy God come fill my soul and set this captive free
May my heart become your Bethlehem when Christ is born in me

The Son of God came down to us and walked the blood soaked earth
Where he died on Calvary’s poisoned tree to give us second birth
Please Holy God come fill my soul and set this captive free
May my heart become your Bethlehem when Christ is born in me

Holy God abide within, keep me in your perfect plan
Form Christ in me Lord, may I be another Bethlehem

Lord make my heart a manger, birth in me your Son
Place in my flesh the evidence Emmanuel has come
Please Holy God come fill my soul and set this captive free
May my heart become your Bethlehem when Christ is born in me
May my heart become your Bethlehem when Christ is born in me

Amen. ✠

[1] Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”

[2] Sermon 192.

[3] “The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

3 thoughts on “Christmas: The day your heart became Bethlehem”