Christmas Spirit For The Spiritless
The word “Christmas” and the word “spirit” go together like a first and last name: “Christmas spirit”. We speak so easily, so naturally of the “Christmas spirit”, that wonderful feeling of good will and joy which permeates the air dining this season, and we often ask: “Why can’t it be Christmas all through the year?”
Of course, I realize that the Christmas spirit does not capture everyone. There are persons for whom this is the most difficult season of the entire year. It brings back memories of family, traditions and loved ones now gone. When we stop to think about it, it’s easy to understand why some people lack the Christmas spirit. In fact, I think that’s why Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become so interwoven into our celebration of Christmas. Dickens, you see, wrote this story when he was both spiritually and financially destitute. He was struggling with his own lack of spirit. Ebenezer Scrooge and his “Bah, humbug!” dismissal of the Christmas spirit was actually a reflection of Dickens’ own feelings at the time. Listen to the way Charles Dickens portrays this lack of spirit:
“Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather, foggy withal, and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breast, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already. It had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air—The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open, that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who, in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very small that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room.”
Just one paragraph later, Scrooge’s nephew enters the dismal office with a cheerful greeting: “Merry Christmas, Uncle!” To which, Scrooge responds with his notorious “Bah, humbug!” Dickens then uses the literary device of three “spirits” to finally inject the Spirit of Christmas into Scrooge: the spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present, and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. And Ebenezer Scrooge winds up catching—or rather, being caught b y- the true spirit of Christmas.
Now one of the lessons taught in Sermon Preparation 101 in seminary is that the preacher should try to preach a sermon that will reach the greatest number of people. Today I am going to run against that teaching. While I intend to include in this sermon something that children can grasp, this sermon is hardly meant for children, for they seldom lack spirit, especially this time of the year. In fact, the critical challenge for most parents and other loving adults is to try to calm the spirits of children until Christmas comes. Also, I doubt if this sermon will hit home to those adults whose lives, at least at this point, are free from pain and stress, and who move through each day filled with the blissful wonder and excitement of the Christmas season. No, this sermon is meant for those who have lost or maybe never had the spirit of Christmas. This sermon is preached in the hope that such persons can be captured by the spirit of Christmas and then say with Scrooge: “Good Spirit, I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.” Yes, even old Scrooge wound up crying out: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel; I am as merry as a schoolboy. A merry Christmas to everybody!”
So if your Christmas spirit is sagging, or even non-existent, let me suggest a couple of ways to let the Christmas spirit take hold of your life. My suggestions are obvious, but sometimes it’s the obvious we overlook.
Focus on those who are closest to you.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers cherish what is known as “The Haggadah”, a collection of Jewish stories based on the great themes of the Bible. One of those stories goes like this: “A man left his village, weary of his life there. He wanted to find a new life, an exciting life. He wanted to find a place where he could put all his troubles behind him. So he walked all day. At the end of the day, he found himself in the midst of a dense forest. He decided to spend the night there. He took some bread for his meal and then said his prayers. Before going to sleep, however, he took his shoes and he placed them in the center of the path on which he was walking. He pointed them in the direction in which he had been going, so that in the morning he would not become disoriented by the forest and lose his way. He then went to sleep. During the night a man came along, a jokester, and seeing the man’s shoes in the middle of the path, and knowing why they were there, he turned them around so that they were facing in the direction from whence the man had just come. In the morning, the man awoke, gave thanks to the creator of the universe, slipped on his shoes and headed in the direction they were pointing. Again, he walked all day. Toward evening he saw the wonderful city he was looking for. Only it wasn’t as large as he thought it would be. In fact, as he got closer to it, it looked very familiar to him. But he pressed on anyway. He walked into the town. He found a street that looked familiar to him. He knocked on a familiar door. And he was greeted by the family he found there, and he lived happily ever after.”
So focus on those who are closest to you; focus on your family. If you work at it, that’s where your greatest joy will always be found. You see, from the very first silent and holy night in Bethlehem long ago, Christmas has always been a family matter. Just as the shepherds of old were irresistibly drawn to the stable, so at Christmastime today we are irresistibly drawn toward home, toward family, toward those who are closest to us.
Now I don’t want to have to say this, but I must. Unfortunately, in many homes this Christmas, with many families there will be a chill in the air, and it won’t be the weather. You see, there’s a big difference between everybody being at home and being at home with everybody. Sadly, in some families, there is estrangement, alienation, division, uneasiness, bitterness, hostility and grudges made all the more graphic by the sacredness of the season. It’s so sad, so tragic to me to see families torn apart—and it’s even worse for me to think of that at Christmastime. But think about this please: how many people will be injured or abused or even killed because somebody in the family got mad? How many squabbles will break out? How many obscenities will be screamed? How many embarrassing scenarios will be played out this Christmas because family members can’t get along?
Let me say this clearly. Christmas is the time of peace and reconciliation. If you have a problem in your family, go fix it in the spirit of Jesus Christ—and you’ll begin to feel the Christmas spirit.
A few years ago, I was visiting with one of our college students a few days after Christmas. She was radiant with joy. I asked if she had a good Christmas. She replied: “The best Christmas ever!” She went on to say: “I have been on this earth for 20 years and for the first time in all of those years Mom and Dad didn’t get into a big fight at Christmas this year. It was the best Christmas we ever had!” Mark this down. Whenever and wherever there is peace and harmony and respect and tenderness and thoughtfulness and caring in a family, there you will find and be found by the Spirit of Christmas. Focus on those closest to you.
Focus on the Christ who came for you.
This, of course, is most obvious, but unfortunately it is becoming more and more difficult to do. There are all sorts of forces at work these days bent on extracting all religious spirit from the Christmas season. They trudge out on their “creche patrols”, snatching Nativity scenes from public places, rubbing out religious symbols, making certain that there is no mention of God or Christ or carols. You and I are living in an increasingly secular society and a secular society assumes that there is no reality beyond what you can see here and now. What do we do about it? Well, we can explode in anger, or we can wring our hands and wish for the good old days. Neither one accomplishes much. No, the only thing that will work is to work at keeping our faith alive by telling the story, by keeping the beautiful traditions, by celebrating what happened at Bethlehem and by fostering the Christmas spirit in the hearts of our children. You see, the best way to find the Christmas spirit in your life is to focus on the Christ of Christmas.
In the “Peanuts” cartoon, Linus and Charlie Brown are looking up at a bright starry sky. Charlie Brown says: “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Linus speaks: “Yes, it sure is.” Charlie Brown says: “Would you like to see a falling star?” Linus replies: “Yes, I would.. .but on second thought I wouldn’t want someone to go to all that trouble for me!” Well, the beauty of the Christmas Gospel is precisely that—that the brightest of all stars, the only begotten Son of God, fell from heaven for each one of us. That’s why when you focus on Him you find yourself found by the true spirit of Christmas.
By the way…
Do you know why Santa Claus is such an important part of Christmas? Mind you, I’m speaking here of the real Santa Claus. It all goes back to a young man named Nicholas. He was born in 280 A.D. in a small town of Asia Minor called Patara. He lost his parents early to an epidemic, but not before they had planted deep within him a love for Jesus Christ. Then little Nicholas was moved to Myra, a city in what we now know today as Turkey. There, Nicholas proceeded to live a life so full of the giving, loving, sacrificing spirit of Jesus, that when the town needed a bishop, they elected Nicholas though at the time he was still a teenager. He made such an impact that the day came when he was imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. They tried to destroy his faith by torture. It didn’t work. Finally, years later, he was released from prison by the emperor Constantine. He returned to the people he loved and to his self-giving work in the name of Christ. Stories began to spread far and wide about him—how he would gather food to feed those who were hungry, how secretly he would give young girls money so that they would have a dowry in order to get a husband, how he frequently would don a disguise and go out to give gifts to poor children. Ultimately, he gave away everything he had and everything he could get from others. In 341, he died. Later, his body was moved to the town of Bari in Italy. His remains are there still. But the story of Nicholas has spread around the world. In fact, more churches are named after him than any other follower of Jesus Christ in all history. We know him as St. Nicholas. People have done some unusual things to him. The poet, Clement Moore, gave him a cheery nose and eight tiny reindeer. The cartoonist, Thomas Nast, made him big and fat and wearing a red coat with white fur. Others have given him different names: Father Christmas, Pelz Nichol, Kris Kringle, and yes, Santa Claus. But what is really important about him is that he focused his life on Jesus Christ and on the people who were close to him. And because, like Jesus, he lived a gentle, self-giving life of love, he touched the whole world. That’s St. Nicholas—the real Santa Claus.
And you know when you begin to reflect on the life St. Nicholas lived, then you begin to feel the true spirit of Christmas. And you find yourself saying with old Ebenezer Scrooge: “Good Spirit, I will honor Christmas in my heart and I will try to keep that spirit all year.”