"The Language of Christmas"Dr. Lee Carter Luke 2:22-40; Psalm 148 Year B - First Sunday After Christmas
I met him while I was doing my last-minute Christmas shopping and as we were standing in the checkout line. His face seemed so welcoming and friendly that I decided to strike up a conversation. Right away I discovered that he didn’t know English very well. He struggled to come up with the words and then this came out: “Do you speak Christmas?” “Why, yes! Yes!” I said with a grin. “I do.”
I assumed what he meant to say was: “Do you celebrate Christmas?” But then I thought how profound the question he actually asked was: “Do you speak Christmas?”
The Christmas stories of the New Testament gospels are written in a language that not everyone understands. They are written in the language of faith and not everyone gets it.
To speak the language of Christmas is to try to articulate in words or images our feelings of overwhelming joy or what the Christmas stories in the New Testament gospels call “exceeding joy.”
Have you ever seen the way little children express joy? They feel it with their whole bodies, from the tips of their fingers to the bottoms of their toes. They kick their feet, flail their arms, jump up and down like they are riding a pogo stick– and you just know something’s got them all excited. That’s exceeding joy.
Likewise, in the language of faith, joy is sometimes expressed with cosmic language. An Old Testament passage often quoted at Christmastime, Isaiah 55:12, certainly speaks this language of joy:
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Or Psalm 98:8: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together.”
This is the language of the cup that runneth over, the language of exuberance, language that reaches the highest heaven: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace, good will to all.” Psalm 148 joins in the chorus:
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies (Psalm 148:1-4)
Praise the Lord from the earth you great sea creatures and all ocean depths lightning and hail,snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children.
In the nativity stories of Luke’s gospel, joy is further expressed as the singing of angels, choirs and choirs of angels. In the language of Christmas, joy is the heavenly song of the heart in spite of earthly heartache, tragedy and pain.
The gospel story of Christmas, face it, is not a sentimental account of happy children in comfortable homes, gathered around a handsomely decorated fireplace, asking for lots of presents. The story of Christmas in the gospels is about an impoverished refugee family forced to leave their home and country because of a death threat from a ruthless, double-crossing, murderous dictator. It’s a story about human brutality. A paranoid tyrant named Herod decrees the bloody murder of children two and under in that little town of Bethlehem.
That’s the Christmas story we find in Matthew. Did you expect a romance? No, that’s reality. That’s the world we live in. We know the language of cruelty and inhumanity, and here we have an outlandishly affluent emperor named Caesar Augustus bent on filling his coffers even fuller with taxes from the poor and expanding his armies by conscripting unwitting foreigners by virtue of his notorious decree (Luke 2:1). That’s how the Christmas story begins in Luke.
But here is where God comes in. Here is where God’s grace breaks through the darkness. Some loving Egyptian family took pity on the young refugee family, Mary, Joseph and young Jesus as they fled. Someone took them in. Someone fed them. Someone showed them grace and kindness and love. God bless that Egyptian family!
Call it the visitation of an angel, whenever God breaks through by someone’s kind act, it makes me want to sing: Let the starry heavens rejoice! Let the angels sing to the highest heaven! Let the trees of the wood clap their hands! Let the hills sing for joy! Oops, I’m speaking the language of Christmas!
Let’s go back to the other language, our usual language, not the language of Christmas, you know, the one with pretensions to explain all reality.
Remember the despised shepherds, the hired hands. Lose the false nostalgia for shepherds. No one invited shepherds into their homes for fear that they would bring in lice, let alone make the home ritually unclean. Cultured folk looked down their noses at shepherds. Shepherds had about the same amount of respect from upstanding folks as thieves.
Respectable people wouldn’t even allow a hired field hand to look them in the eye; shepherds had to keep their eyes lowered. People dismissed them as ignorant, ne’er-do-wells, and sheep stealers. Shepherds knew the pain of living on the margins, always dirt-poor, never trusted, always being harshly judged.
In the gospels, these are the kinds of folks that God loves and reaches out to–people who have been pushed to the side and treated with indignity. But our God loves surprises almost as much as upsetting our pretensions and pride.
One extraordinary night, grace broke through to the ungraced hired hands—it was a loving, all-embracing, all accepting grace. And their fear turned to joy.
Let’s say it in Christmas language. “And the angel said to them “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you [emphasis mine]is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’
That’s Christmas language alright! In usual language, it just so happened that the newborn savior of the world was napping back in one of the feeding troughs of these despised shepherd folk back in the Podunk backwater of Bethlehem.
What kind of language could ever convey their heartfelt joy? Language for singing! Joy that breaks through in the midst of constant rejection needs Christmas language to express that wonderful feeling, so that you just want to sing along with choirs of angels and fields that rejoice and trees that clap their hands (Psalm 96:12).
The old Christmas story is set in a world we know well. Refugee families still flee for their lives, murderous dictators still rob mothers of their precious babies. The Christmas story takes place in that world. Yet it testifies to a joy that seems to come to us from another. Christmas is all about those moments when we experience the heavenly in the earthly and the joy of divine comfort in the midst of hardship, rejection and loss.
The Christmas story is about people who suffer the hurts and private pains we all face. In Luke’s Christmas story we meet elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth, who had always hoped to have children, but swallowed hard and went on with their lives, for years upon years hiding away their inward pain of their childlessness (Luke 1).
Then the unexpected happened—a big happy bundle of the unexpected, baby they named John! Joy! Joy that fills the heart and soul and the heavens themselves. What kinds of words can you use to express that kind of joy?
Let the heavens rejoice?
Let the stars of heaven sing together?
Let field and forest, flora and fauna all sing for joy!
Now you’re speaking Christmas!
Or think of the inner pain of Anna in the Luke’s story, widowed for most of her adult life (Luke 2:36-38). Never a day passed without at least a fleeting memory of her beloved husband. The grace of God came to her when Mary and Joseph stopped to greet this old woman, a stranger, who rejoiced to see Jesus.
There are a lot of Annas out there in need of someone to pay them attention, someone to treat them as people with something to offer and something to say. And when these welcoming strangers stopped by to talk with her, well, let’s say let’s say it in Christmas: the heavens opened and all the trees of the wood clapped their hands. What? Trees don’t have hands? You don’t speak Christmas, do you? Well, Anna surely did!
And Luke’s gospel tells us about old Simeon—age spots on purple veined hands, sagging wrinkled skin on arms where muscles once had been (Luke 2:25-35). Why, I’ll bet he even had hair growing out of his ears!
And yet Simeon, like many older people today, had so much to share with the younger generation, but I guess no one seemed to want to stop and listen. But Mary and Joseph did. Old Simeon saw their child and then it happened–grace broke through to him. And Simeon sang. Did he ever! With Christmas joy! Let the chorus of the seas roar, let the stars croon with the chorus of constellations. Sing choirs of angels, sing in exaltation!
You see in the world of trouble we live in, God’s love and grace still break through to us. It makes us want to sing, sing with all nature, sing with all creation, sing with choirs of angels, sing to the highest heaven.
Now, here’s where you enter the story. The real agent of divine love and grace is you. You were expecting Gabriel? God’s agent for bringing joy to those in sorrow is probably not the archangel.
It’s you! The one God calls to be joy to this weary world is you.
No, the Christmas story of the gospels is not some otherworldly sentimental romance. It addresses victims of bullying, victims of violence, victims of a massacre.
In the real world that I live in there are oppressors, iron-fisted despots, paranoid about losing power, who treat others as objects or as pawns in their strategic games of power politics. I live in a world of tragedy, where parents sometimes outlive their children and the hurt never goes away.
But I also live in a world where a simple act of love and kindness can create a tiny opening in another person’s dark cloud and permits a beacon of hope to break through for them. Again, that divine messenger sent by God to bring love and grace, comfort and joy, looks a whole lot like you!
Now, I hear you. You are telling me that you are no angel. Well, you are talking to the wrong guy. You see, I speak Christmas. When people reach out to love strangers, I call it “God knocking, God coming to call.”
And with every act of grace and love and kindness, whenever a heavy heart is lifted, I want to sing along, and I sing in Christmas: Let the sea roar, let the heavens declare the glory of God. Let all the stars of heaven chime with the music of the spheres. Let all those who hurt declare, “in our lowest moment, God visited us.”
In just a simple act of love and kindness, sorrowful hearts begin to trace the rainbow through their tear drops and sing for joy—in the language of Christmas.
About the writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Once in Royal David s City
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
What Child Is This?
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christians, All Rejoice
We Three Kings
Sing We Now of Christmas (Richard Zgodava, Fred Prentice)
Christmas Day (Gustav Holst)
Every Valley (John Ness Beck)
Sing We Noel (Noel Goemanne)
Hodie (Healey Willan)
A Wondrous Mystery (Lloyd Pfautsch)
What Child Is This?
O Holy Night
Away in a Manger
Mary, Did You Know