by Edward F. Markquart, Seattle, WA
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
Today, I would like to talk with you about the birth of Christ and the birth of Christmas. Christmas was born 300 years after the birth of Christ. The birth of Christ and the birth of Christmas were separated by 300 years.
First, let’s talk about the birth of Christ. We know that the birth of Christ occurred in about the years 6-4 BCE. That is, Herod the Great died in the year 4 BCE. That’s a simple historic fact. Take your search engine, Google, and type in Herod the Great and see how many websites about Herod the Great are on your computer. My computer calculated 153,000 websites on Herod the Great and almost all the websites agree that he died in the year 4 BCE. From the Bible, we know that Herod slaughtered the baby boys in his region, two years old and younger; so we estimate that Christ was born somewhere between 6-4 BC.
Also, there was an unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. You can see a replica of the Christmas sky at many planetariums during this time of the year and at a planetarium, you will see this unusual movement between Jupiter and Saturn that many people think may have been the star of the magi. So, Christ was born in about 7-4 BC. If you type in “Jupiter, Saturn and the birth of Christ” in the Google search engine, you will find more than 10,000 sites dedicated to this astronomical research for the star of Bethlehem.
But no one celebrated Jesus’ birth for three hundred years.
So how was Christmas born? How did the season of Christmas come about? Let me briefly explain.
In the land of Persia, today Iran and Iraq, there were astrologers. Astrologers were the scientists of that era of history, and they were the scientists of the sky. They studied the stars and understood their movements. Now, the astrologers from Persia believed that the world was conceived on March 25th; they didn’t say which year; but that the world was conceived on March 25th. For them, that was a fact. So...when was the world born? Yes, of course, on December 25th, nine months later.
Now, a second stream of thought occurs in North Africa, in the city of Carthage. In Carthage, there was a man by the name of Hippolyitus, living in about the year 220 CE. He was the father of confirmation; that is, he originated a three-year study program after which people could be baptized. Well, Hippolytus, a great theologian, believed that Christ died on March 25th, in the year 29 CE. He believed he had knowledge of that fact. He also believed that Jesus was conceived on the same day he died, that is, on March 25th. So if Jesus was conceived on March 25th, he was born on ...December 25th. In other words, the Savior of the world was born on the same day that the world itself was born. That made good sense to Hippolytus.
Now, a third tradition has to do with the Roman Saturnalia. First Persia, then North Africa, and then Rome, Italy. The Roman world celebrated a festival in midwinter. Now, you all tell me exactly the shortest day of the year. What is the shortest day of the year? You know. It is December … 2lst. Yes, of course. The days start to get longer on the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th. So in the Roman saturnalia, they celebrated the victory of light over darkness, of the day over the night, of the sun over the moon. ... How many of you children have vacation from school during late December? Yes, you all do. Did this begin with America? Of course not. It was part of the Roman Saturnalia. The kids all got off from school as part of their festival. How many of you men and women get some vacation time during late December? Is your mid-winter vacation caused by some strong labor union victories in the 1930s? Of course not. The Roman Saturnalia gave people vacation from work during their holiday. That tradition has existed for centuries. How many of you exchange cookies with each other during late December? And why? You guessed it. How many of you exchange presents with family members during late December? And why? You guessed it. It was part of the Roman festival.
If you add together the Persian astrologers belief in the birth of the world on December 25th and Hippolytus belief that the Savior of the world was born on December 25th and the Roman Saturnalia holiday in late December which celebrates the victory of light over darkness, you gradually understand how Christmas was born in about the year 350 CE. If you add a few parties and “Christmas toys on sale, Christmas toys on sale,” visit a few malls and spend a few billion dollars, you have the makings of an American Saturnalia.
So, what is Christmas really all about? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Christmas is about the Lord God becoming a full human being, the Lord God becoming bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Christmas is about God coming to earth in human form. According to the Bible, Jesus was sent by God. But to do what? What was Jesus sent to do? To save us human beings from our sinfulness and selfishness. Also to fill us with love, love for God and love for our neighbors. In other words, Jesus was sent by God to earth to give us what we really needed: to free us from our selfishness and fill our hearts with love. When our hearts are filled with love, we give from the fullness of our hearts to those in need.
Christmas is about giving, giving from the fullness of our hearts, giving to people who need the gifts. Like the three Wise Men, bringing their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. Their hearts were filled with love, and out of love, the wise men gave gifts to the infant Jesus who was in need of those gifts. Like the littlest angel bringing a monarch butterfly wing and a blue robin’s egg to the baby Jesus. The littlest angel’s heart was filled with love and the littlest angel gave his most previous possessions to the infant Jesus. Like Amahl in AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS bringing his crutch to give to the child born to be king. Christmas is a story about a special kind heart filled with love and giving gifts of love to those who need them.
That same theme of God giving a special gift to those in need continued in the tradition of “Jolly old St. Nicholas, lend your ear this way. Don’t you tell a single soul, what I’m going to say.” Now, Jolly Old St. Nicholas was not some fat bellied, red suited, white bearded old man who appeared in every department store to have children sit on his lap nor did he land on every rooftop with eight reindeer. Rather, St. Nicholas originally was a bishop in the church in a land called Smyrna, now the area of Turkey. He didn’t go around giving gifts to all the kids on all the streets and all the cul de sacs. No. His giving was specific and to the specific needs of particular children: shoes for those children who had no shoes; clothes for those children who had no clothes; food for those children who had no food. The special giving of St. Nicholas was to meet the special need of those around him. The heart of St. Nicholas was filled with love and he gave gifts of love to those who needed them.
This same theme of God giving people hearts of love and those loving hearts giving special gifts to those in need is repeated by many Christians today at Christmas time. The giving of the Roman or American Saturnalia is to exchange gifts with family and special friends; but the giving Christmas is to those in need. To illustrate, I know several families who have a budget for their Christmas spending. These people are giving the same amount that they have budgeted for exchanging presents to the Lutheran Compass Center in downtown Seattle or the Des Moines Food Bank. They match dollars, for the American Saturnalia and for Christmas giving to those in need.
Still others of you give your time and money by serving in one of the downtown shelters during this season or at our homeless shelter in our church.
Still others of you are taking angels off the Angel Tree in the narthex and you purchase two specific gifts for a child whose mother or father is in prison. The list goes on. But we sense within ourselves that merely exchanging presents with each other doesn’t really honor the birth of the Son of God.
I found a poem the other day that seems to fit:
“When Jesus called that Christmas week I wasn’t at my best;
And the house was much too cluttered to entertain a guest.
He seemed to notice everything, the card still unaddressed,
The gifts piled high awaiting wraps, the baking and the rest.
He eyes fell on the evergreen and the presents ‘neath the tree,
It’s my birthday that you celebrate--what are you giving me?
‘What am I giving him?’ I thought; ashamed no words I found.
So many costly things I’d bought, he looked at me and frowned.
I prayed he’d let the question pass, but when he did persist,
I blurted out the truth at last, you were not on my list.” Louise Teisberg
Is Jesus on your list this Christmas? ... Honestly? It’s Christmas. ...What special gift are you giving to Jesus this Christmas? ... We all know the pleasure of finding the right present for our husband and wife, for our children, a good friend, a parent. We know the pleasure of our American Saturnalia. But the question persists. What special gift are you giving to Jesus this year to honor his birth?
My life has been enormously blessed in so many ways. One of the blessings of my life is to serve on the Board of Lutheran World Relief, and that means I have been able to encounter some of the people and places around the globe where Lutheran World Relief works. One time, I was in Arusha, Tanzania, and there I visited a home of a woman who received a cow from Heifer Project International. Let me explain. If a person such as this woman is willing to learn how to care for a cow and do the fencing, plant the needed grass, and learn how to care for an animal, she is given a cow from Heifer ... with the expectation that she will give the first calf to the next person in line at Heifer. This lady, after several years, had a small herd of cattle. She had become quite prosperous from that first gift. In my conversation with her, I told her that many people in our church gave money to Lutheran World Relief and Heifer Project, and that she was a wonderful example of this ministry working at its best. She spoke words that I will never forget. She said: “Jesus gave me this cow, by first giving you and your people a heart of love.” Surprised, I asked her to repeat herself and she said, “Jesus gave me this cow by first giving you and your people a heart of love.”
That is what Christ is all about. That God sent Jesus from heaven to earth to give us human beings what we really needed most in life: hearts filled with love. That is what you and I need from God this Christmas. A heart filled with love. O yes, we have tons of wants. We are like children with a catalogue before Christmas, circling all our wants by the dozens. But we have one essential need: a heart filled with love. God wants to give you a heart filled with love on this Christmas and every day of your life
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