The Real Meaning of Christmas

Rev. John Dixon Elder
Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2011
Text: “The light shines in the darkness, for the darkness has never mastered it.” John 1:5

Those of you who are fans of Garrison Keillor and his tales of Lake Woebegone will perhaps
remember his Advent story about “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” Pastor Ingkvist has decided
to preach on just one theme, and it is not a very surprising one: the real meaning of Christmas is
spiritual, not material. Unfortunately Pastor Ingkvist has already succumbed to the campaign his
children have been waging for weeks, even months, and on the Friday before this Advent Sunday
he has secretly driven to the “big box” store 30 miles away in St. Cloud and bought armloads of
presents, including a game for his 9-year-old son – a video game called “Annihilation.” Pastor
Ingkvist leaves the store very angry – angry at his children for having trapped him into buying so
much plastic-packaged junk, angry at the store owners for installing special fluorescent lights he
is convinced have the demonic effect of making people buy things they don’t really want, angry
at himself for having succumbed.

So on Sunday Pastor Ingkvist preaches with a special fervor. But when he finishes the first
page of his sermon, attacking the commercialism and materialism of Christmas – “Christmas
cannot be bought! Christmas is not for sale! Christmas is not material things!” – he sees his son
in the fifth pew, chin quivering, eyes filling with tears, as the little boy who has been yearning so
long for the Annihilation video game begins to suspect what this “real meaning of Christmas” is
going to mean for him. No video game under the Christmas tree! So Pastor Ingkvist realizes he
had better discard the rest of his sermon and just wing it. Abruptly he begins to preach about the
Three Wise Men and the importance of gifts – physical, tangible gifts! The real meaning of
Christmas is not just spiritual. No, indeed – the real meaning of Christmas is also – material!

I suppose for each of us Christmas has multiple meanings, even more than the two Pastor
Ingkvist recognized mid-sermon on that Advent Sunday. Christmas means the hustle and bustle,
the carol-singing and card-writing, the bright lights and glistening decorations, the pageants and
concerts, the angel message and the manger scene, the promise of peace and the assurance of
God’s favor, the birth of the Messiah and the coming of the Wise Men, and, yes, the exchanging
of gifts – but above all, maybe, the meaning of Christmas is the gathering of family and friends.
But Christmas can also mean the pain of failed relationships and aching emptiness of missing
loved ones. And for all too many folks, the panoply of holiday ads for luxury goods contrasts
with their struggle for the necessities of life: food, clothes, shelter, work, medicine, a doctor to
prescribe it. Indeed, the very commercialism of Christmas Pastor Ingkvist began condemning
provides for many working people the pay to purchase those necessities. It has always bothered
me that some pastors use the occasion of Christmas – or Easter – to chastise people who come to
church on only those two holidays, without recognizing that many people must work on Sundays
to support themselves and their families, much less acknowledging those for whom Christmas
means a day they must go to work in order to keep the wheels of our whole society turning.

So then, for all of us gathered here and all those who might wish to be here, Christmas surely
has many meanings: material, spiritual, emotional, theological – far more than any preacher could
sum up in a single sermon. How could there be only one “real” or “right” meaning of Christmas?
Therefore let me try this morning to share just part of the meaning Christmas has for me. To
put it most simply, Christmas means “wonder.” Take the carol we just sang – written by a
folklorist after he heard a young Appalachian girl in the North Carolina mountains sing those
first lines, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die for
poor ordinary people like you and like I.” Doesn’t the haunting mood as much as the simple text
point to profound mystery? The evening before last the residents of Kendal gathered for a
Winter Solstice program of music and readings. One of our neighbors, Meg Gold, spoke of the
season as “an occasion to wonder at the mysteries beyond our comprehension.” As much as
anything, that is the real meaning of Christmas for me: “An occasion to wonder at the mysteries
beyond our comprehension.” And that, I believe, is what the author of the Gospel of John was
doing in our Scripture reading today – wondering at the mysteries beyond our comprehension.

We see that sense of Christmas wonder most clearly in children. How many of you know
Barbara Robinson’s little book, first published 40 years ago, about the Herdman family of
juvenile delinquents who take over the annual Christmas pageant and turn it into, as the title says,
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? It ends with Mrs. Wendleken commenting, “‘Well, Mary the
mother of Jesus had a black eye; that was something special. But only what you might expect’…
She meant that it was the most natural thing in the world for a Herdman to have a black eye. But
actually nobody hit Imogene and she didn’t hit anyone else. Her eye wasn’t really black either,
just all puffy and swollen. She had walked into the corner of the choir-robe cabinet, in a kind of
daze – as if she had just caught onto the idea of God and the wonder of Christmas… When
Imogene asked what the pageant was about, I told her it was about Jesus, but that was just part of
it. It was about a new baby, and his mother and father were in a lot of trouble – no money, no
place to go, no doctor, nobody they knew. And then, arriving from the East (like my uncle from
New Jersey) some rich friends. But Imogene, I guess, didn’t see it that way. Christmas just came
over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever. And so she was crying, and walking into
furniture.” (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Harper & Row, 1972, p. 78)

I saw this kind of childhood wonder displayed a couple of years before Anne and I moved to
Kendal from Maryland. We worshiped in a small Church of the Brethren congregation, where,
as it happened, most of the children were adopted – and, like the Herdman kids, pretty wild, even,
maybe especially, when they all got together in church. So when two of the five-year-olds were
chosen to portray Mary and Joseph in the traditional pageant, we were prepared for the worst.
But to our astonishment, something came over Isobel and Kyle, just like Imogene, and as they
processed slowly down the aisle to the Bethlehem manger, they radiated awe and deep wonder.
One meaning of Christmas, then, for us grown-ups, is that it refreshes our childhood sense of
wonder – a sense of wonder that has become sadly dulled. When I watch a children’s Christmas
pageant now I am sometimes transported back in time to a corridor in Park Central Presbyterian
Church in Syracuse, NY. I am in an itchy burlap shepherd’s garb, a long crook in my hand, about
to take my place in a scene where I can only “wonder at mysteries beyond my comprehension.”

But does that wonder stop at childhood? Surely not for our Gospel writer. The Prologue to
John’s Gospel is a very sophisticated and intellectually challenging blend of poetry and prose that
grapples with the most fundamental of questions: How does everything that is hang together?
What is the coherence that unites all being? What links creation to compassion? How is light
related to life and life to love?” Yes, how does everything that is hang together? We have been
hearing the past few days that scientists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are
close to identifying the Higgs boson – popularly called “the God particle.” That term was coined
by physicist Leon Lederman twenty years ago, in part because Lederman’s publisher refused to
use his proposed title, “The Goddamn Particle” – indicating both the villainous way this
wraithlike presence eludes discovery and the immense expense the search is costing. But there is
another reason for calling this mysterious cause of all mass “the God particle.” Lederman
reflects on the search for knowledge and concludes with a re-telling of the Tower of Babylon
story: “And the Lord came down to see the accelerator, which the children of men builded. And
the Lord said, Behold, the people are unconfounding my confounding. And the Lord sighed and
said, Go to, let us go down, and there give them the God Particle so that they may see how
beautiful is the universe I have made.” (The God Particle, Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 22)

There is innocent childhood wonder. But there is also mature, adult, intellectually questing
wonder. Indeed, I suspect the sense of wonder and awe may be greater today in the scientific
community than in the church. One serious student of the relationship between science and
religion is Elaine Ecklund, who teaches at Rice University. In her study of what scientists really
think of religion, she identifies one group of scientists she calls “spiritual entrepreneurs.”

Although these scientists do not look to religious communities as sources of truth, they do share
a spiritual experience that, in her words, “connects them to something outside of themselves
through awe at the intricate complexity and vastness of the universe of which they are a part and
through concern for other human beings.” “Awe” and “concern.” Or we could say, wonder and
love. As the great astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle commented, “I have always
thought it curious that, while most scientists eschew religion, it actually dominates their thoughts
more than it does the clergy.” What I think Hoyle meant was that in some profound sense, more
profound than for most ministers, scientists are aware of the ultimate wonder of Being, with a
capital B. Whatever dimension of Being they probe, scientists cannot escape the fact that, in
preacher Ralph Sockman’s phrase, “the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline
of wonder.” Why else would Albert Einstein, who contributed to much to our understanding of
“what is,” of Being itself, have written these famous words, “The most beautiful and most
profound experience is the sense of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom
this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
If only we church people could find better ways to connect with this mature wonder at the
mystery of Being! We claim – John’s Gospel claims – an ultimate coherence of us human beings
with all Being that can neither be fully understood – comprehended – or totally destroyed – overcome.

The Greek can be translated either “comprehended” or “overcome,” so I follow the New
Testament scholar James Moffatt in translating it “mastered,” which can convey both “comprehend” and “overcome.” “The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never mastered it.” The meaning of Christmas in John’s Gospel is that this light from the loving source of life enlightens us, no matter how much “in the dark” we may seem be. And Jesus makes this love visible.


John Elder’s translation of John 1:1-18

Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18
(1) In the beginning was the Word;
and the Word was with God;
and the Word was God –
(2) this Word was in the beginning with God.
(3) All things came into being through the Word,
and apart from the Word not one thing came to be.
(4) That which had come into being in the Word was life,
and this life was light of humankind.
(5) The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness has never mastered it.
(6) There was a person sent from God, named John, (7) who came as a witness to
testify concerning the light, so that everyone might believe through him – (8) but only to
testify concerning the light, for he himself was not that light.
(9) The true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world]
(10) The Word was in the world;
and through the Word the world was made,
yet the world did not recognize the Word.
(11) The Word came to his own home,
yet his own people did not accept him –
(12) But all those who did accept him –
those believing in his name –
he empowered to become God’s children,
(13) who were born not of natural descent nor of physical urge nor of a husband’s will,
but of God.
(14) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen the honor given him –
honor like that given an only child by a parent –
filled with steadfast love and loyalty.
(15) John testified to him by proclaiming, “This is he of whom I said, ‘The one who
comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’”
(16) For from his fulness we have all received, blessing after blessing.
(17) For while the Law was given through Moses, this steadfast love and fidelity came
through Jesus Christ.
(18) No one has ever seen God;
it is the only divine child,
closest to the parent’s heart,
who has revealed God.