A Wish and a Promise: Christmas 2020
Merry Christmas! I hope it really is, for you. “Merry” is kind of a single-use word; we basically never say it except in front of the word “Christmas.” What are we wishing each other? It’s not the same as ‘happy’, like the English or Spanish say, or ‘joyful,’ like the French say. ‘Merry’ is more of a mood; it’s that light-hearted, uplifted, all-is-well kind of feeling. It’s maybe shallower than happiness in a way, and much shallower than joy, but it’s so nice when you have it. Maybe this year we need merriment more than usual. That means conquering the gloom. Gloom can be heavy; but for most people nothing has more upward lifting power, against that heaviness, than Christmas.
I’ve heard different conversations about people’s favorite Christmas songs, and Christmas movies, and opinions vary but there’s a little common ground. Every reasonable person agrees that The Muppet Christmas Carol is fantastic, and that Little Saint Nick is horrid. And you won’t find many people who don’t like How the Grinch Stole Christmas in both versions. I watched the original this week (strictly as homily preparation, of course).
Most of you know the basic point: it’s a story about learning that there’s a meaning to Christmas more important and more profound than getting presents. That’s a great moral, and definitely important especially for kids. I can remember, sympathetically, how as a kid presents are so exciting that it can be hard to see past them. And that’s not bad, it’s just incomplete. So hooray for the lesson that if you take all that away, the essential core of Christmas is still there. The title of the movie is ironic because of course the Grinch couldn’t steal Christmas; Christmas is something that no one can take away from us.
So why are we talking about a movie? Well — and please remember, I’m on the record as liking the movie and celebrating the message — but this is a fact: at no point from beginning to end is the incarnation of Jesus Christ mentioned, implied, or relevant. There are Christian hymns in the 2000 version but in the original, if the Eternal Son had never become incarnate as man you literally wouldn’t have to change a single thing. What would you think, if that’s all you had to go on, that Christmas is about? It seems to be about family and love and togetherness. And hooray for those things, obviously, we Christians can affirm and celebrate that message. It’s just that we also, as Christians, have so much more to say. Something more; something truly radical.
Because that core message, of seeing the deeper joy that can't be stolen, is one we need to take a step further, maybe this year especially. Because if we leave it there then for many of us we’d have to say that where the Grinch failed, the virus has succeeded — and that 2020 is the story of how the Covid stole Christmas. We could imagine an alternate 2020 version in which the Grinch, having loosed covid upon Whoville, cackles with delight on Christmas morning as the usual celebration failed to appear, as the town square stood silent and empty and all the Who’s stayed in their houses. Sure, some of those houses hold merriment and togetherness, but at least some people are in those houses alone.
But you know what? That’s true every year. If Christmas is only for people who can feel light-hearted, only for people who can be together with people they love, then Christmas isn’t for everyone and never has been.
There’s another important and beloved strain in our pop culture that acknowledges that part of it. When “White Christmas” was first publicly performed by Bing Crosby, it was seventeen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was about distance and separation and nostalgic longing, about what was missing that year for so many people. A few years later in 1943 Crosby had another huge hit, as troops in Europe and in the Pacific and so many of their families back home wiped tears from their eyes hearing “I’ll be home for Christmas… if only in my dreams.” You don’t really understand that song in context until you imagine it being sung by a man shivering alone in a foxhole on the other side of an ocean.
The Gospel we're here to celebrate today, the reason for our radical joy that can't be stolen, is that Christmas is for everyone. It can’t be taken away by stealing our presents... but it also can’t be taken away by loneliness or separation or war or a virus or even death. Some will celebrate this Christmas in a way that’s great and actually pretty normal for them. Others will have celebrations, also great, but smaller and different. Others will be broken-hearted and lonely. But that’s true every year, and the Gospel is the same. We're here for a greater joy than just that we happen to be the lucky ones right now. We're here for a greater hope than just that we will be the lucky ones in the future. Christmas is for everyone because Jesus came for everyone.
It’s Jesus. It’s our Savior, Who saw a lonely broken-hearted world, lonely for God, hearts broken by sin and death, and Who came to us in Bethlehem to be laid in a manger. To make it true — not just a nice thought or a beautiful wish, but really actually true — that no one is alone.
I wish, with all my heart I wish you a Merry Christmas… but I promise you this: God is with us. God is with all of us.