Luke 2:1-20/9pm version
Keep Christmas Well
This Advent, I’ve been reading a book called Almost Christmas: A Wesleyan Advent Experience, which opens like this: “In a particular episode of the classic comic strip Dennis the Menace, Dennis is standing in the living room on Christmas morning, brightly decorated tree in the corner, with stacks of empty boxes and shreds of wrapping paper all around him. Having opened up his mountains of Christmas gifts, he stands there, arms outstretched and yelling at the top of his lungs for all in the house to hear: ‘Is that all?’
“Of course, we want to tell Dennis that he missed the point. We prefer to remember that Christmas is not about receiving presents, checking off your wish lists, and getting everything you want. Despite what holiday retailers would want us to believe, Black Friday does not define Christmas Day.
“Yet, if we are honest, we do find ourselves resonating at a certain level with dear Dennis. As we go through a December filled with the frenzy of gift-buying, party planning, house cleaning, home decorating, and one-social-gathering-after-another, we can see ourselves stepping back from the madness of it and saying to ourselves, ‘Is that all?’ Is this all there is to Christmas? Isn't there something more that should define our observance of this season?” (5-6)
Dennis, of course, is supposed to be a bit ridiculous. An immature child, always getting into trouble. But I’ll admit that I relate to his sentiment, to this book’s introduction. It’s not that I’m longing for more presents, more stuff. Generosity abounds, and by the end of the season, I can barely keep track of all the thoughtful things that folks have done for me, have given me. Rather, somehow, by the time Christmas evening rolls around, I sometimes feel a little like a deflated balloon. Tomorrow is actually the first day of the twelve days of Christmas, but sometimes I already feel like Christmas is done and I am too. I know some of that is just the unwinding that comes for those of us who are part of planning and leading worship services. Christmas Day usually involves some kind of nap - and I hope it does for you too! But it’s more than that, I think. Sometimes, I feel like I miss the “all that” of Christmas. Maybe you do too. Maybe we all relate to Dennis a little bit.
All through the season of Advent here we’ve been following the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You’re probably familiar with the story. Scrooge is a rich, greedy, stingy, cranky man who stores up all his riches, who generally doesn’t share, and who, because of his attitude, his priorities, finds himself quite alone. He’s visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, and they lead him to repent of his sins and vow to lead a new life.
When Scrooge awakens, and finds he hasn’t missed Christmas yet, he’s overjoyed, eager to begin the work of making amends. He says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! … Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees!” His face is wet with tears, and he’s also full of laughter for the first time in a long time. He starts out his day by purchasing the biggest prize Turkey and having it sent anonymously to his poor clerk Bob Cratchit’s for dinner. As he heads out, he smiles at everyone in the street, and returns their Christmas greetings warmly. He pays down the debts of some who owed him money with his own funds. He goes to dinner with his nephew Fred, who has been trying to build a relationship with Scrooge, but til now Scrooge hadn’t been willing. And the next morning, he teases Bob for being 18 minutes late to work, but instead of seriously reprimanding him as he once would have done, he raises Bob’s salary, and commits to assisting Bob’s family. And he does just that. He becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim, who doesn’t die, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be had warned was possible. Dickens tells us that Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” Some people laugh at how changed Scrooge is, but he doesn’t care. We read, “he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” Finally, Dickens writes, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
What about us? Do we know how to keep Christmas well? Would people say of you that you know how to keep Christmas well? Scrooge is so transformed by his journey of repentance that people laugh to see it, they’re so amazed. I wonder: Does the impact of Christmas - of Christ being born, of God dwelling with us in the world - does it show on our faces? Does it show in our lives? How are we doing at keeping Christmas?
As we wrestle with those questions, we can dig a little deeper. What exactly does it mean to “keep” something? It’s a pretty simple word, maybe even a simple concept, but there are some nuances. Often, “keep” means “possess.” “Can I have that toy you’re playing with?” “No, I’m keeping it.” Sometimes “keep” means to continue doing something, to persist in a certain action. “She’s been keeping up with her piano lessons.” We also use the word “keep” to mean guard or protect. “The parents wanted to keep their children from harm.” When we think about “Keeping Christmas,” do we know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, given those nuances? Sometimes, I think we’ve gotten mixed up.
If we turn to our Christmas story from Luke’s gospel, we can search for the theme of keeping there. Matt Rawle writes, “The scene begins at the palace and ends with no place. It begins with Caesar, who was named emperor of the world, and ends with a baby placed in a feeding trough. It begins with the seat of human power and ends with those who live in powerless poverty. It begins with everyone being counted and ends with a baby revealing that everyone counts. God is beginning to turn the world upside down for all of the right reasons.” (The Redemption of Scrooge, 129) So, as our text opens, the emperor is doing some keeping. He’s keeping count. He’s counting up all the people, because he wants to make sure he’s getting taxes from everyone to support his government, his lifestyle, his empire. The emperor’s kind of “keeping” is the “possessing” kind. He’s not sharing toys with anyone!
The only place we see the actual word “keep” in our translation is when we read about the shepherds. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. The shepherds are “keeping watch.” The word here has the sense of “keeping” that means guard or protect. That’s just what the Greek words means. It also means “to defend” or even “to cherish.” So, the shepherds are doing some keeping - they’re guarding what’s been entrusted to them, protecting the sheep from harm.
But “keep” is actually implied in another place in our text. When Mary and Joseph receive the shepherds who visit their new baby Jesus, the shepherds are amazed and exuberant. Mary, though, is reflective. We read, “but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The word we read as “treasured” is actually something like the word “keep.” It means literally “to protect.” Mary is treasuring everything that’s happening, and she’s protecting her experience in her heart. In both these cases from Luke, the “keeping” of the Christmas story isn’t about possessing, keeping as in having something so that others don’t. Rather, both the shepherds and Mary are doing some protecting, some guarding, some cherishing. What do you cherish? What do you guard with your heart because it is invaluable?
This Christmas, as we welcome Jesus, ever-God-with-us, into our hearts and lives anew, we decide what we will keep and how we will keep it this Christmas. I suggest we take our cue from the gospel, and do the kind of keeping that leads more toward cherishing and protecting than possessing. We can laugh at Dennis the Menace, but sometimes we find ourselves after the peacefulness of Silent Night lost in the torn wrapping paper on Christmas Day, clutching at stuff, or feeling empty, and wondering how we missed Christmas. Instead, let’s keep our hearts open for Christ to dwell within us. Let’s treasure God’s word, God’s child, God-made-flesh, which, in the way of God, we do best by sharing, letting the light of Christ shine out from our hearts. Matt Rawle writes, “We should keep Peace...keep Hope...keep Love...keep Joy … We do not have to keep the same level of gift-giving debt … We do not have to keep the fear and anxiety of creating the perfect Christmas. We do not have to keep the same invitation list to the white elephant party, which excluded the family member with whom you were fighting. We are called to keep the Scriptures and the truth within them.” (The Redemption of Scrooge, 135) Friends, everything else we’re trying to keep? Everything else we’re clutching so tightly? We can give all that to God, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who knows each lily of field and bird of the air.
Tomorrow or the day after or sometime in the week or so to come, there might be a moment where we feel like we are done with Christmas. We can’t eat one more cookie. We can’t stand the sight of our decorations anymore. Every present has been unwrapped. But if we keep Christmas well, it isn’t a day or even twelve to cross off our calendars. It’s our transformed lives, because we’re keeping - cherishing - treasuring - the light of Christ in our hearts. Let us keep Christmas - treasure it, cherish it, share it - and let us keep it well. Amen.