+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a delight to be with you this evening, to share glad tidings of great joy in this holy place, to enjoy and be inspired by the beautiful decorations and music, to connect with the story and hope of Christmas.
Next to my desk I’ve got a stack of holiday catalogs, a couple feet high. Since early November, the mail most days has dumped at least an inch. Last year, I’d spent hours on the web unsubscribing from the catalogs, but it made no difference – they sent them anyway.
So I’ve received thousands of pictures of Christmas cheer, glossy pages selling me joy and happiness. Here’s an inch sampler: MoMA Design Store with artful cutouts of dancing, happy children; Sundance, a woman with a big smile, presumably happy because she’s feeling cute and cuddly in her Sundance outfit; a Lafayette 148 woman looking pretty happy with herself; a Jockey couple looking happy together; and another underwear company, a Victoria Secret woman looking like she wants to make you happy.
A lot of promises about happiness. Do you believe that they’ll deliver? Well, sort of. Hard as it is to admit, they work… on all of us. They are enticing. They sell. If they didn’t work, we wouldn’t get them. They look like a way to joy and happiness.
There are two basic ways we can try to have a merry, happy Christmas, indeed to have a merry, happy life. One way: we orient ourselves to external things, to accumulating things, to winning praise and position.[i] We put our energies into getting money and developing an attractive image and attaining high status with lots of power and influence. It’s assumed that if we have wealth, a winsome appearance, and popularity, we will feel important, special, happy.
And there’s another way, one that directs us to find joy and happiness internally. Following this way means we focus on our own personal growth, our character development. Or, we focus on our relationships, being connected, being close to some other people. Or, we focus on serving others, helping the world be a better place, developing community spirit. Or, some combination of those three.
Surveys show that people extrinsically oriented have less satisfaction with their lives, enjoy less energy and vitality, and feel more depressed and anxious. They’re primarily worried about getting more and discontent with what they have. That’s part of what the catalogs are doing – suggesting dissatisfaction with what you have.
On the other hand, surveys show that people who orient their lives mostly toward intrinsic goals – growth, relationships, service – report more vitality and joy and less depression and anxiety. They focus not on what they don’t have, but on what they do have, being grateful and considering how they can share it, how they can be part of something bigger than themselves.
I doubt that surprises any of us. If we can slow down, breathe, be still: most people know this, and most of us have some awareness of an inner conflict between these two different visions of where joy comes from. We’re mixed up. There’s a war in ourselves, and it heats up around Christmas. We get two different and intense messages, and if you’re like me, you kind of follow both of them, sort of hedging our bets.
Luke’s Christmas story lays out the two different ways. Luke wrote his gospel to convince us that Jesus is the Lord, God, the Son of God, God of God, Redeemer, Savior of the World.[ii] Those are the very same titles people in the ancient world used to describe Caesar Augustus. In fact, many, many more people talked that way about Augustus than about Jesus. The birth of Augustus in 63 BC was called “gospel,” good news for the whole world.[iii] There were stories of him being fathered by Apollo, the god of light, and being born of human mother. To the ancient world, Augustus was the light coming into the world.
Luke trashed all of that. Instead Luke gamely proclaimed that Jesus was the light in the darkness, and that Augustus was the darkness. Luke presented a choice: do you commit yourself to Augustus or to Jesus? Whose way do you follow? Where’s your heart?
Augustus was a remarkable man. Among his many accomplishments, he had ended a brutal, decades long civil war, and began the period known as Pax Romana, or Pax Augustana, a couple centuries of peace… well, a sort of peace, a peace that included war for those who rebelled against Rome or for those who lived on the border of the empire and became victims of Rome’s violent expansion. Rome wanted more, and Roman peace came only after conquest; it was peace and joy through violence and victory. This is the way of accumulating wealth, power, and status; the way of external validation.
The Christmas gospel says that true peace and joy come not from a sword, but as a gift from heaven, a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes, heaven in a baby whose life is anything but money, image, and control. The gospel declares a tiny baby to be the king of peace, a peace and joy that comes from love and justice and non-violence, a peace and joy available to all people. The angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace throughout humanity with whom God is pleased.”
The angels announced the good news not to kings in palaces, but to shepherds in a field, despised shepherds, among the lowliest, like the smelly tanners, and camel drivers, and sailors – the bottom rung of the social pecking order. Shepherds were considered to be disreputable, like thieves, because they grazed their flocks on the property of others; dishonorable because they were not at home at night and so couldn’t protect their women.[iv] They lived moving from place to place, on the margins, the people not counted in a census. Shepherds were oppressed, exploited, and scorned, and they received the good news.
The good news: God is pleased with all, God delights in every person. Jesus would later teach, “Love your enemies, and help without expecting a return… you will not regret it… you will be children of God; for God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.” (Lk 6:35) Christmas shows us that God embraces all humanity, not to control and exploit, not to make himself greater.
God does not come in power and splendor, but as a meek baby, hungry and cold and vulnerable and seeking human care and comfort. He’s not aloof and distant, but close and needy. He, who would give his life and give us life, first came receiving life and sustenance and strength from us. God desires mutuality between us and him, giving and taking, working together, collaborating. It’s what makes us close.
What’s the first thing an infant does?[v] He sucks milk. The mother provides care and gives not out of following some rule or law or teaching, but out of following her very being. She offers herself: food, affection, warmth, tenderness, intimacy because it is natural, what she is. It’s in our blood, what we’re made of. It’s always there in us. We just don’t always connect to that part of us. There’s that war going on within each of us.
Luke contrasts Augustus and Jesus, two ways of being in the world: live to make a big name for ourselves or live to be part of something much bigger than ourselves. It’s a decision we’re making all of the time, sometimes pushing away from God and other people, and sometimes drawing closer. Christmas is a moment to renew and to choose the way we want to go.
You may have some gifts awaiting you, but let’s take a moment and think of five gifts you’ve already received, anything: it could be a Sundance sweater, a job, health, a moment of beauty or inspiration or emotion, a friend, a warm home, a task to do, a bottle of wine, a change in your character, something you’ve learned, a compliment or kind word spoken to you, perhaps you may even be grateful for a disappointment or a dissatisfaction… Let’s not judge them as to how holy they are. Let’s just accept them, acknowledge how much we have,… [Silence].
Let’s be thankful. Count them again tomorrow, and then again. Gratefulness moves us toward growth, and connection, and service. Real joy comes from being grateful, from an awareness of how God has blessed us, how he has come to us, how he always comes to us.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Happy, a documentary film directed by Roko Belic, 2011, interview of Professor Tim Kasser, Knox College, who makes the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” ways to happiness.
[ii] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, HarperOne (2007), p. 165.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 190-91.
[iv] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 232.
[v] Much of this paragraph from a brief clip of the Dalai Lama in Happy.