Contributed by Jay McDivitt
What things bring you joy during this time of year? What things irritate you during the holiday season?
Story: Congress Wages War…over Christmas
Representative Henry Brown, Jr. (R-South Carolina), has introduced a bill in the House which, if passed, would make it clear that Congress “strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas” and “expresses support for the use of… symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.” Brown believes that it is important for him to have “the right to celebrate Christmas” and that “wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ should never be met with disapproval.”
Although this is the first time that the so-called “War over Christmas” has been discussed in Congress, it has become a regular feature of the holiday season to debate how people—especially retail employees and public leaders—should greet one another during this festivetime. As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, the growing presence of non-Christian neighbors poses the question of whether “Merry Christmas” is a meaningful, appropriate, or insensitive way to greet strangers who may celebrate something else—or nothing at all—rather than the birth of Christ. “Happy Holidays” is a commonly used alternative.
Opinions vary widely, among Christians and non-Christians alike, about this question of decorum and etiquette. Some think this is an example of “political correctness” gone wild; others think it is a meaningful way to acknowledge religious diversity and offer a gesture of hospitality to non-Christian neighbors. Still others think this conversation is simply a silly way to bring the “culture wars” into a season that should be filled with peace and good will.
- What do you think about Rep. Brown’s proposed bill? Would you vote for it?
- How do you greet people during this season? Do you have friends or neighbors who you know are non-Christian? Do you treat them differently from your Christian friends during the Christmas season?
- Whether “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” the greeting implies that this season is joyful. How joyful are you? How do you express joy during this season?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 20, 2009 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
The season of Advent belongs, for the most part, to John the Baptist. This year, we have three weeks in a row where John plays an important role. Today, however, his name doesn’t even appear in the text—but he’s there. John is the baby who jumps for joy inside of Elizabeth’s tummy. Talk about a Christmas greeting!
John’s main job was to prepare the way for the Messiah—to point out the Christ; and today we learn that even while he was in utero, he was doing his job. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John when Mary shows up. All Mary has to say is “hello,” and John does cartwheels in Elizabeth’s womb: “This is it! Pay attention to this one, Mom!” And Elizabeth, rubbing her belly, looks Mary in the eyes and calls her blessed; she recognizes Mary as the mother of her Lord.
And anyone watching this scene unfold would have been very surprised. Mary? Her? This poor, unmarried girl carrying an “illegitimate child” is blessed? Cursed is more like it. At least embarrassed or ashamed… but blessed? The mother of the Lord?
But Elizabeth knows—deep inside her own body—that something special is happening in Mary. This child is, indeed, the Messiah. John said so—long before John could even speak.
And if you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you shouldn’t be all that surprised. Everywhere you turn in the Bible, God is doing wild and holy things with unexpected people. In God’s strange way, it makes sense that God would choose to bring the Messiah into the world through the womb of an unremarkable girl, a poor girl who probably wouldn’t have been noticed. Makes sense, of course, if you’re prepared to look in ordinary places for extraordinary things.
And that’s what John prepares us to do. That’s his job. This important prophet, son of an important priest in the Jerusalem Temple, is only a signpost, pointing to the amazing thing that God is doing in this illegitimate child born to a homely girl from a good-for-nothing corner of Israel. So John points. And Elizabeth blesses. And Mary sings.
And that’s what we do, too.
We point—we look for signs of God’s grace and love in unexpected places.
We bless—we call things “holy” when they remind us of God among us.
And we sing—we greet Jesus with songs of joy and sing those songs in the midst of a world in fear.
We do this, not because we want to shove Jesus down peoples’ throats or to make people uncomfortable. We do it, even if we don’t always use words—even if we find other ways to share joy and life with people who do not share our faith in Christ. We do it, not because we have to or because God tells us to. We do it because we, like John, Mary, and Elizabeth, simply can’t help it. This news is too good not to make us jump for joy—to point, bless, and sing out the good news that God is coming, Christ is here, and joy is real—today and always. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.
- Where do you see signs of joy in the world around you? Where do you see the “Christ” in all the Christmas stuff that is happening during this season?
- Does everything that says “Merry Christmas” on it have something to do with Jesus? What are some parts of the Christmas season that aren’t all that connected to the birth of Christ?
- What would be a meaningful way to share the joy of Christmas with people who don’t know or worship Christ? What are some ways you can spread the joy of Christmas with people who aren’t feeling joyful?
- Go through the Christmas section of the hymnal you use in worship and count all the references to “joy.” What do these hymns say about the reason for joy? What do these hymns say about the reason for Christ’s birth—what it is all about or what it accomplishes? Finish by singing Joy to the World together (ELW 267). Notice that this is in the “Advent” section of the hymnal. Why do you think that is?
- Depending on who you ask, either the Third or the Fourth Sunday in Advent is gaudete Sunday—the day when some folks light a pink candle on the Advent wreath. Gaudete means “joy” in Latin, and it traditionally was celebrated on the Third Sunday of Adventwhen the readings were about Mary’s pregnancy and the joyful announcement of Christ’s coming birth. In recent years, those readings now fall on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, leading to some confusion about when it would be appropriate to light the pink candle. Nevertheless, sometime around this day, the church celebrates Joy with a little pink flare—a break from the more solemn, blue season with its focus on repentance. Introduce the theme of “joy” and gaudete Sunday to the youth and then make something pink—a stole/scarf, banner, t-shirt, etc. Invite the youth to adorn cloth with signs and symbols of things that bring them joy, things they are hopeful for, things they are waiting for in their lives. Invite them to share these projects with each other.
O God for whom we wait: Fill us with joy as we celebrate your birth among us. Help us to see the joy you are bringing into the world and point it out to those around us. Open our hearts and minds to see your blessings and open our mouths to sing for joy. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen