Robert's Sermons

The Spirit of Christmas


It sits in the middle of the page surrounded by some Big Mac burger coupons directly below a fancy advertisement for furs and above a headline: ‘Save a Fortune on Your Taxes.’ To the left there’s an ad for a Cartier watch collection. Then in bold at the bottom of the page, a department store advert with the announcement: ‘FREE PHOTO WITH SANTA to the first 50 children.’ Encircled by all those other advertisements – is a plea for a homeless shelter: ‘Home for the holidays’  means something different to a homeless family. Will you help them?’  Pictured is an obviously down and out couple clinging to each other for warmth and comfort.

It’s just a page from a December newspaper. But still the irony would be funny if it weren’t so painful an indictment on what Christmas has become for too many people today. For some people Christmas is exactly what is pitched: watches, furs, concerts, jewellery, champagne and roast turkey – extravagance without a care in the world. For others, Christmas is a Big Mac only in your dreams and the night spent at a Salvation Army hostel – but it’s still better than starving to death outside.

There has always been some sense of contradiction in our celebration of Christmas. So much so that in days of old the church attempted to have Christmas banned. It was in England during the tenure of Oliver Cromwell. His Puritan Party passed legislation outlawing Christmas. In England there would be no more lavish and raucous celebrations, no more commercial exploitation, there would be no more Christmas, period. Of course the people were outraged. There was rioting in the streets. Secret Christmas celebrations broke out all over England. But Cromwell retaliated. Parliament decreed penalties of imprisonment for anyone caught celebrating Christmas. Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding people that “Christmas and all other superstitious festivals” should not be observed and all businesses should remain open. Christmas decorations of every kind were strictly forbidden.

In 1647 many riots broke out in various places demanding the legalisation of Christmas. But the puritan government stood firm and proceeded to break up Christmas celebrations by force. People were arrested and in many instances jailed. The Puritans seemed surprised by the strength of the resistance to their anti-Christmas policies, but they would not alter their position or compromise their principles. They did, however, pay a high price for the those principles at the next election. The Puritans were thrown out of power – and Christmas was back. Eventually a powerful surge of enthusiasm from people of all faiths swept all the resistance away. In the end, neither the moral authority of the church nor the power of the state could prevent the spirit of Christmas with all its excess from erupting once again.

The spirit of Christmas has a life of its own – undisciplined, unorganized, chaotic, overly-commercial, ever-present, invincible! All efforts to reform it, change it or amend it have failed, despite countless efforts to do so. We may not be able to restore this season to its pristine beauty, but I believe we can recapture something of its deeper meaning even in the midst of its most exuberant excess. We know in the plainest possible terms what the spirit of Christmas is all about. We know what happened, when and where and why. Shepherds came to the stable. And three magi. The ox and the ass looked on in wonder. No living creature was exempt from astonishment. Even the stars looked down with a peculiar gleam. Tradition holds that at the moment of our Saviour’s birth, all nature was hushed as if time itself had missed a beat … and in the shock of that stillness, all creatures knew what had happened. In a language too deep for words there was a universal revelation of God’s eternal love.

According to legend and folklore, it was revealed to every part of creation: from the very stones at the bottom of the scale of creation to the angels at its summit. The miracle was made known to the stones for there were earthquakes throughout the Mediterranean world at the hour of Jesus’ birth. The miracle was made known to the plants, for in certain regions the vines suddenly flowered, bore grapes, and produced wine. It was made known to the animals, to the ox and the ass present at the manger. It was made known to the angels, for the whole host of heaven had come down to earth and shone around that cave with a brilliance that turned night into day. According to legend the meaning of this most holy time was made clear in the last instance to the human beings, for we were the ones with minds clouded with preconceptions and hearts torn by conflicting desires. The angels and the stones of the field, the birds and the beasts knew instantly what was happening, but we human creatures could not understand lest we abandon our ways of perceiving the world. Even though king Herod was making preparations for war at that very moment, on Christmas Eve all nature sang together in harmony; the stars and the shepherds, the ox and the ass, Mary and Joseph. The robin’s breast is red, one legend tells, because it fluttered its little wings to quicken the dying fire which has been lit to warm the Christ child as He lay in the manger. As the fire grew brighter and brighter, the feathers of the robin’s breast caught the glow from the flames and have remained red ever since.

What all these myths and legends of our ancestors have in common is the sense of unity and serenity in God’s whole creation. The peace which we celebrate this season is nothing less than the peace of God. It is not a blessing to be enjoyed by humans alone; it is a peace which belongs to God’s whole creation. The purpose of Christ’s coming was not to save something as vague and immaterial as the human soul, the real purpose was and is to restore God’s peace to the entire creation. Things animate and inanimate, plant and animal, resources natural and supernatural must be restored to their original harmony if all is to be as God intended.

As oxen and ass, cattle and sheep, stones and stars, shepherds and kings came to the stable in that moment of wonder, so let us be still for a moment this Christmas and in that moment of silence rededicate ourselves to be the peace-makers God has called each and every one of us to be. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, carve out for yourself a moment of peace and serenity, to get in touch with the real spirit of Christmas. A time for quiet reflection in which you can let the spirit of Christmas speak, and let God’s peace stir within you, touching your deepest being. Admittedly this simple suggestion is not always easy to carry off, especially during the hustle and bustle which accompanies this season. It’s also not only the busyness of the season, it’s the strain and pressure at work, or the news of the world which seems to drown out the deeper stirrings of the still small voice from within. Toss a global pandemic into that mix and it’s hard to dial down and reflect.

This world is still threatened by violence and by war at this very hour. Violence in our streets, war and terrorism in distant places. How hard it must be for the families of those soldiers who are this very moment camped out on some battlefront – so far from home. Not a place anyone would choose to spend Christmas – anymore than Mary and Joseph chose Bethlehem. For they too were acting upon orders issued by a higher authority. In the 2000 plus years since that first Christmas morning we have not found a way to weave the miracle of Christmas into the affairs of nations and empires, let alone make it a permanent part of our daily lives, such that we would no longer need these external props to remind us of what we have forgotten, neglected, or ignored. So we need to be self conscious, deliberate and intent upon the task. Carving out that island of peace and serenity in which the spirit of Christmas can come shining through. And the strange thing is, the spirit of Christmas does manage to find a way of expressing itself despite all the things we do to keep it at bay. God’s peace has a way of reaching out to touch and transform us, intent though we may be in pursuing lesser things. Long ago Howard Thurman put it this way.

“The spirit of Christmas is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stirred with the newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident that wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

At its best the spirit of Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best that life can be. At Christmas we see ourselves, moved by generosity, inspired by hope, uplifted by love, encouraged by hope, not only for ourselves but for the whole creation, even, and perhaps most especially for those things we usually find unlovable. The homeless family is transformed in our sight into the very image of Mary and Joseph; the abused little baby, abandoned in a garbage bin in some dark alley, has become the Christ child, upon which the hopes of the world are seen to rest. And we too, are drawn into the drama, becoming agents of God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world. Let this be our common prayer this week: that the spirit of Christmas more and more becomes that life-giving presence in which we live and move and have our being. Such that one day, the holiday season and all the excess, shall fade away. Not because it is forbidden, banned or outlawed, but because the true Spirit of Christmas finds complete expression in the pattern of our daily life and pushes everything else into the background.

Matthew 1:23  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Friends, let me encourage you today to contemplate Immanuel; let me encourage you to see that in the midst of the saving, redeeming, wrath-appeasing ministry of Jesus Christ when He was here among us, there is an even deeper message, an even deeper reality wrapped up in the Christmas message – and that is Immanuel, God is with us. His human experience allows Him to relate to us at our deepest point of need. The Christmas story is about a God who is near, a God who is here, a God who is real and a God who understands everything you feel and everything you ache for inside Let me close by sharing some words God gave me on this very day twenty two years ago:


He stepped out of heaven into a teenage womb
Born in a musty stable – the Inn had no room
The wondrous story of Christmas unfolds each year
As we remember the day that God came near

Emmanuel, Emmanuel
The greatest story we will ever hear
God with us, revealed to us
The Christmas story tells us God is near

Out of eternity, into time He came
To take away our sin and all our shame
This baby is our Saviour and our Lord
He’s the One we worship and adore

Emmanuel, Emmanuel
The greatest story we will ever hear
God with us, revealed to us
The Christmas story tells us God is near

All across the world, this story’s told
About that wondrous birth in days of old
It’s more than Christmas folklore – this story is true
God became a man for me and you

Emmanuel, Emmanuel
The greatest story we will ever hear
God with us, revealed to us
The Christmas story tells us God is near

© 1999 Robert Griffith