Immanuel: Christmas Is Still a Time of Such Joy

By REV. GERALD R. FRITZ

Merry Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la, or so the song goes.

In the world in which we live it is easy to become a curmudgeon about Christmas. In the United States Christmas has become thoroughly commercialized, a secular event beginning sometimes before Halloween and ending when the stores finally close on Christmas Eve. In one sense the commercialization of Christmas in this nation was inevitable. We have become a nation of sellers and buyers. Our economic vitality depends on people buying things. We on Martha's Vineyard know this all too well.

Think about Halloween. When I was growing up, costumes, decorations, and even the treats were homemade. We carved pumpkins and set them out. Now people buy their Halloween decorations, buy or rent costumes, buy candies and other treats, and spend money on parties and decorations in unbelievable amounts. And this is multiplied many times over at Christmas.

Consider how Christmas is approached in many homes. The stories of Santa Claus, Rudolph and the other reindeer and Frosty the Snowman are all fun for children, but they have little or nothing to do with Christmas. The belief that Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of God coming into the world as a living human being, seems to have become lost in most of our culture.

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My lament that Christ has been taken out of Christmas is not my only disappointment about what has happened to this holy season. I am distressed that we have reached a point where we do not know what to say, or how to greet one another in this season. Merry Christmas, Season's Greetings, Happy Holidays - do we dare greet each other in Christ's name? It is hard to truly prepare for this special religious holiday because in these days before Christmas we no longer know how to greet people on the street. Our joy seems to be lost in the worry that we might offend a sister or brother from another faith or culture.

In the calendar of the Christian church the four Sundays before Christmas are part of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Sadly, in our culture, Advent is swallowed up by parties and purchasing, and Christmas is declared over on Dec. 25, almost as soon as the presents have been unwrapped and dinner has been eaten. I am always reminded of a sermon I preached several years ago on the Sunday following Christmas. There is nothing as over as Christmas when it's over, I told my congregation.

We have no real Christmas season, and the 12 days of Christmas are known to us only in song. There is no time for savoring the good news of Dec. 25. We have to take down the Christmas decorations to get ready for our New Year's parties.

I recently heard that Willow Creek Church in Illinois, maybe the largest Protestant church in the country, decided to cancel Christmas Sunday worship this year because it was felt that coming out to worship on Christmas day might interfere with the family time.

But beyond the sense of displacement of an entire season of the church calendar lies the much larger issue of the way in which the basic message of the Christian faith is lost. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Christians gather in large numbers to celebrate the birth of Immanuel. The name is significant because it means literally "God is with us." This is the foundation of the basic Christian message that in Christ, God is with and for humanity always.

The Gospel of John makes it clear that in the birth of Jesus we beheld the very person of God who remains with us always. But the Sunday following Christmas is known as low Sunday because it is the lowest attendance Sunday of year.

Where did all the people go?

God has come to us in Jesus Christ because God wants to bring peace and wholeness into existence. Each of us who bear the name Christian is called to find wholeness in Christ and to share wholeness with the world, with other Christians, with members of other faith communities, and with persons of no faith. For me to proclaim, merry Christmas! to those I meet on the street is my simple proclamation of the good news of my faith. I do not mean to offend anyone, I simply want to proclaim to those I meet the joy which this season holds for me.

It would be easy to become a curmudgeon about Christmas, but then I pause and remember my good friend and colleague, the Rev. John Schüle, who said in his Christmas letter: "Is there anything quite like Christmas? This interweaving of story and prayer, of song and color, by which Christ is portrayed and brought before us."

Christmas is a time of warmth and joy, a time of caring and sharing, a time when we laugh a little more, hug without holding back, give from our hearts and thank God for the one whose birth we celebrate.

In the midst of our rushing through this holy season, I hope we can all stop and take a moment to ponder how each of us, regardless of our faith, can be a part of God's great vision of peace for our world. It is the best gift we can give to ourselves, our families, and our neighbors near and far. Don't let anyone take your Christmas joy from you. As for me, I will always share my Christmas joy with a hearty, merry Christmas.

The Rev. Gerald Fritz is pastor at the Federated Church in Edgartown.