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December 25, 2001

Christmas 2001: Sacrificial Gifts

This first Christmas of the new millennium arrives during dark and difficult days for our country. War has visited our shores, taking the lives of thousands of our countrymen, and sorrow and caution has tempered our customary seasonal celebrations.

Fires burned in the World Trade Center rubble for one hundred days, only smoldering out entirely earlier this week. And the bodies of victims, and rescuers who died attempting to save others, were still being recovered as Christmas draws near. This year, we contemplate many sacrifices, laid down as simple, free gifts by our fallen and still-serving countrymen.

In a literal sense, all gifts involve sacrifice, in that the giver exchanges a direct personal resource for another’s benefit. Moreover, in common parlance, we often cheapen the term by calling a “sacrificial gift” anything that is expensive or difficult to give. But a “temporary sacrifice” hardly qualifies as a sacrifice at all, and only a gift that irretrievably changes the giver, can in any meaningful sense be sacrificially given. And, of course, the recipient of such a gift is changed forever as well.

War is always a time of sacrifice. War is a curse; peace is a blessing. No one knows this better than a warrior.

Death, destruction and disruption were the objectives of our September 11th attackers, and those curses have lingered over our land these past one hundred and some days, even as our warrior-defenders have taken the fight to our enemies abroad.

So, as Christmas approaches this year, how do we celebrate in the midst of such changes and confusions? How do we best commemorate the birthday of the Prince of Peace while we are still at war? How do we honor traditions when we are told that everything changed on September 11th?

Historically, the actual year of Christ’s birth is thought to be between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., at the end of Herod’s reign. The first mention of Christmas as a formal Nativity feast occurred in a Roman almanac dated A.D. 336. The day we celebrate Christ’s birth, December 25th, was not chosen on the basis of historical evidence but rather to replace the pagan festival natalis solis invicti, the birth of the sun god Mithras, at winter solstice.

The Christmas star that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem may have been any of a number of recorded astronomical events coinciding with the likeliest dates of that first Christmas. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12 B.C., and ancient Chinese texts note “exploding” stars, or novas, observed in both 4 and 5 B.C. Exceptionally bright planetary conjunctions occurred in 2, 6, and 7 B.C.; among these, the most promising candidate for the Holy Star was the triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 B.C.

The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah, that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….” Clearly, well before the birth of Jesus, humans longed for light in the days of greatest darkness. Early Christians selected December 25th for the Nativity feast to proclaim that Jesus Christ was the real Light of the World, the true “Sun of Righteousness,” as well as the Messiah foretold in Jewish faith. As Jesus later said, he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets of Judaism, but to fulfill them, and so he also fulfilled the deepest human longings expressed in other traditional celebrations. And we Christians believe these aspects of our human nature are not merely enduring, but eternal – because we humans are all created in the image of Eternal God.

Our American Christmas heritage derives, like so much else here, from the mingled Christmas traditions of immigrants from many lands, with differing religious beliefs and customs of worship and celebration. Our name for this Holy Day arises from the old English Cristes Maesse, or Christ’s Mass, and as the name suggests, the holiday was first observed in Early America among the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians who settled predominantly in the Middle Atlantic colonies and the South. Influenced by Puritanism and Calvinism, the New England Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists looked askance at a celebration they deemed based on “heathenistic traditions.” New England colonial authorities outlawed Christmas from 1649 until 1658. The General Court of Massachusetts in 1659 set a fine of five shillings per offense, punishing the observance “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way.” Contemporaneously, the Assembly of Connecticut forbade the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments.

Peter Kalm wrote on Christmas Day 1749, about Philadelphia’s holiday: “Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day….Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel).”

Philip Fithian, of colonial Virginia, recorded in his diary entry for December 18, 1773: “When it grew to dark to dance….we conversed til half after six; Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.”

Fithian’s Christmas Eve 1775 diary entry from Staunton, Virginia, described other common pastimes of the holiday celebration: “The Evening I spent at Mr. Guys – I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns – I myself was entertaind; I felt myself improvd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth – So much divine Exercise.” But his 1775 Christmas Day entry noted the vastly different observances of the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians: “Christmas Morning – Not A Gun is heard – Not a Shout – No company or Cabal assembled – To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate – People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.”

The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Massachusetts in 1856. By the Civil War era, most of our shared Christmas traditions were set, and the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured a drawing of encamped soldiers receiving Christmas gifts from home. Nearly all Americans (96%) celebrate Christmas today in some form or another.

Our country has before this honored Christmas when war was raging in our land. Indeed, our first national Christmases tell the tale of the Revolutionary War’s ebb and flow. The so-called Christmas Campaign successes of 1776 at Trenton and Princeton were presaged by General George Washington’s writings of December 18: “If every nerve is not straind to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition I think the game is pretty near up….No Man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have–However under a full perswation of the justice of our Cause I cannot but think the prospect will brighten.” But these surprising victories were followed a year later by the Revolutionary Army’s retreat to Valley Forge, the trail marked by bloody footprints in the snow. Washington’s discouragement was evident in his writing of “A character to lose– an estate to forfeit– the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake– and a life devoted, must be my excuse,” and about how “it was much easier to draw up remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire-side, than to occupy a cold bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.”

And the last battlefield conflict that visited our shores prior to September 11th came during the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee wrote one wartime Christmas: “My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for his unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day. For those He granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those He has vouchsafed us during the past year [of war]. What should have become of us without His crowning help and protection?

"Oh, if our people would only recognize it and cease from self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in the final success and happiness to our country! But what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!

"I pray that on this day [Christmas] when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.”

Would our wishes today be expressed much differently, despite the span of nearly a century and a half, or the very different enemy we are facing? Are not our thoughts and prayers much the same?

We in this country were given a great gift, at great cost, in the principles of liberty and self-government handed down to us from our Founding Fathers. But we have not treasured this heritage for the great gift it is. So, now we must fight for our freedoms.

We Christians believe that Christmas was a necessity because our human hearts are deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and unfathomably so. War is merely one of the deadliest manifestations arising from this darkness in the hearts of all humans. And Christmas addresses the duality of our human nature. We are so depraved, God had to mount a personal rescue mission on our behalf; we are so valuable, He considered sacrificing Himself worth the exchange. Only a Gift would suffice to redeem such creatures into freedom…. He was the greatest of all Sacrificial Gifts.

Our particular individual sins, which Jesus was born to die for, are revealed best in the recesses of an illuminated heart. Our corporate sins in this nation have been many and grievous these recent years. Perhaps now, while we are at war, we will begin to contemplate real repentance – and then reckoning out the restitution that must be repaid to set things right in our homeland again.

The Wise Men followed the Holy Star to lay gifts, symbolic of His life, before the Baby Jesus: gold, because He was a king; frankincense, as he was a divine king; myrrh, to foreshadow that His suffering and death would be our preservation. In laying down their lives as part of their daily work, our warriors and rescuers give us, their countrymen, lasting sacrificial gifts. Our rescuers enact earthly missions like the godly one that began that first Christmas. And our warriors serve the cause of the Prince of Peace, in that only a well-fought war will surely bring peace. As we know these acts are right and good and true, how can we then not freely acknowledge the Baby Jesus as the one true King, the Author of rescue, and the only Provider of peace?

It is not true that September 11th “changed everything”; that day merely revealed – inescapably – painful realities our leaders had beguiled us beyond admitting. All that changed September 11th? All our perspectives. Perhaps, in the dark and difficult days since then, we have begun to rediscover the great gifts of liberty in our heritage. We pray this is true.

The miracle is not that we can honor Christmas in peace and in war, but that so much of Christmas has endured into our time, celebrated still in its full glory and significance, despite its central paradoxes, so strange to our ears, of the Gift beyond reciprocation: God born in Man, Eternity captured in Time, and Light piercing the Darkness, to reveal a Truth at the heart of the Universe.

And the choice set before individuals and nations has always been this simple – choose life or death; worship God or humankind; live free or chafe in chains. We have only to follow the Star and accept the Gift.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble….” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Publisher’s note about our Christmas message: We know that some of our readers are of faiths other than Christianity. We hope this message will serve to enlighten your understanding of our faith, and we wish God’s blessing and peace upon you and your families, in whatever setting you may worship.

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