Festivus for the rest of us!
If you’re a fan of Seinfeld, that line will be quite familiar to you, especially during this time of year. George Costanza’s father, tired of the rampant commercialization of Christmas, decided tTro make his own holiday called Festivus. “A Festivus for the rest of us!” Instead of a Christmas tree, there was a Festivus aluminum pole with no decorations. There was the traditional Festivus dinner, the Feats of Strength, and my personal favorite, the Airing of Grievances where you sat around the table and told everyone how they bothered you this past year. Even though it was meant to be a parody of the holiday season, there are people today who celebrate Festivus. Wanting to be inclusive, one workplace decided instead of having a Christmas party, they would celebrate Festivus together. A guy in their office felt it was so blasphemous, he tried to knock down the Festivus pole. The lead organizer said, “Grievances were aired about him.” But he’s not the only one with a humbug attitude. A group called The Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis joined together to condemn another made up holiday, Christmukkah, saying that it was “insulting” to both Jews and Christians. It’s ironic that two groups who differ so much in every other respect don’t mind coming together in outrage instead of love.
Anger makes strange bedfellows.
Sometimes, when we feel challenged, we become defensive. And some people are awfully defensive about Christmas. But are we defensive for the right reasons? There are protests when nativity scenes in public areas are being taken down. There are protests about companies telling their employees to say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But these same people don’t seem to be too worried about global warming or that there isn’t enough food on the table for millions of people this holiday season. We spend more airtime focused on these minor grievances than problems that are having a real impact on the lives of people around the world. We act as if God is more concerned about celebrating Jesus’ birthday rather than honoring Jesus’ life through our actions. And for what? For a holiday we completely made up? In a way, Christmas is no more “authentic” than Festivus or Chrismukkah and that includes the whole Advent season.
Most people think of Advent as a countdown to Christmas.
And in a way it is. But the significance of Advent is deeper than simply a calendar with treats inside. For Christians, it is a reminder of the wait of our Jewish ancestors for a savior and at the same time symbolizes our own wait for Christ’s return. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, but most people assume it starts on December 1st since every Advent calendar made today seems to countdown the 24 days until Christmas. But before we start bemoaning how Advent has become commercialized, we should probably realize the early church never had an Advent season. It wasn’t created until the 4th century after Jesus’ death and at the time it was 6 weeks long similar to Lent. Like Lent it was considered a time of spiritual preparation. It wasn’t a hopeful time like we celebrate it now, but a time to reflect on your sins. People would fast and because of the similarities some even called Advent a “second Lent.” Originally, Advent wasn’t about Christmas at all. It was the time leading up to the Epiphany, and back in the 4th century the Epiphany celebrated all the aspects of Jesus’ early life up to his first miracle of at the wedding in Cana. Sometime during the 6th century, the focus of Advent changed to the second coming of Christ or what they refer to as the Parousia. It would take another 1000 years before Advent became associated with the birth of Jesus at all.
Which, by the way, didn’t happen on December 25th.
You probably know that by now, but most of us grew up associating December 25th with the birth of Jesus. Even friends of mine who are not Christian know the reason we celebrate Christmas is to honor the birth of Christ. But the truth is, no one knows precisely when he was born. One book I read explained it was likely Jesus was born in the Spring since the Bible refers to shepherds who were tending their flocks at night, something they would NOT have done in the dead of winter. But no one ever wrote down when Jesus’ birth actually took place. The Bible never describes Jesus having a birthday party and it simply was never the focus of the early church. The two biggest events in the church calendar were Epiphany and Easter. Christmas wasn’t even on the radar. It wasn’t until around the 4th century that the first recorded Christmas celebrations began to occur. The 4th century – 300-400 years after his actual birth. Which also, by the way, wasn’t in 1 AD. Most scholars today will tell you Jesus was likely born somewhere between 2 and 7 BC, which translated from the Latin means “before Christ.” Because of an error in calculation, the guy who invented the counting of years as we know it today was off somewhere from 2 to 7 years. So the first actual Christmas was not likely on December 25th, 1 AD but sometime in the Spring of 2-7 BC. Some Christians get so defensive about when we celebrate Christmas when it was all made up to begin with.
What we need to focus on during the Christmas season is the “why,” not the “when.”
Pretty much the only thing we know definitively is that Christ was born, died for our sins, and rose again. The rest is all stuff we made up – the date, the season, the traditions. Even the giving of gifts did not happen on the day Jesus was born as we often believe. The only gift given that day was from God to us in the form of a baby in a manger. Which is the reason we celebrate. Let us be reminded of that fateful evening long ago that changed the world.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:8-14
This is the importance of Christmas.
The birth of Christ into the world. “Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” In all the hubbub of the Christmas season, it’s good to simply share in the story of the birth of Christ and be reminded of the significance of that moment when “a great company of the heavenly host appeared” saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When I mentioned we need to focus on the “why” instead of the “when,” this is the “why” we need to focus on – why we celebrate the season. We celebrate the fact God humbled himself to enter into the world just as we do. God became human to lead us, guide us, and share with us the good news of salvation that comes through him. The good news the angel refers to is of course the birth of Jesus and as we like to say, he is the reason for the season. Instead of getting focused on the details of Christmas or worrying about the commercialization of Christmas or if the season is losing its meaning, we need to instead focus on the meaning itself. When we do that, when we make it clear why we celebrate the season, the rest of it will happen by itself. There isn’t an active groundswell to undermine Christmas. There isn’t some orchestrated War on Christmas as some conservative pundits like to argue. And we’re not losing Christmas to Festivus or Christmukkah or any other made-up holiday. If we’re losing the spirit of Christmas, it’s because we’ve forgotten the “why” of Christmas to begin with. Christmas will be remembered not because of a manger scene on someone’s front lawn but because we keep the spirit of Christ alive in Christmas, now and all year round.
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine named Mark Thompson.
We went to Cerritos Elementary School and had most of the same teachers all the way up through fourth grade. Mark is coming up on his 14th birthday. That’s right. His 14th birthday. And I don’t mean because he’s young at heart. I mean literally, his 14th birthday. If you haven’t figured it out already, Mark is a “leaper” or “leapling” as they call it. He was born on February 29th, 1968, the same year as I was born. Yet he is only 13 years old because of the way we keep time on the calendar. Since his actual birth date only occurs once every 4 years, he is only one-fourth of my age. But is he really? We’ve lived the same number of days – actually I’ve lived less of them since my birthday is after his. But Mark used to like to say that he’d live to be a lot older than me because he’s aging only a fourth as fast as I am. I hate to break it to him, but he’s not really aging slower than anybody. Just because the date of his birth only shows up on a calendar once every four years, doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s still aging like the rest of us. We get so focused on the minutae at times that we fail to see the bigger picture. December 25th is just a number. Christmas should live in our hearts every day. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.