The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE MEANING
22nd DECEMBER 2009
Today I have come to your school to speak to you about the meaning of Christmas feast which we are to celebrate in couple of days.
In many countries of the world, the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a high point of the year. From November onwards, it is impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. Everywhere we lookĖ in the streets and shops - we see Christmas lights and decorations, Christmas trees decorated with lights and ornaments, images of father Christmas or Santa Claus, reindeers and many other things associated with our modern idea of Christmas. In the large shops you can also hear Christmas carols and traditional Christmas songs being played in the background. By mid-December, most homes will also be decorated with Christmas trees, coloured lights and other decorations around the rooms. These days, many more people also decorate garden trees or house walls with coloured electric lights, and Santa climbing up the wall, a habit which has long been popular in USA and which we have jealously copied.
For the majority of people Christmas is a time for giving and receiving presents. I sure all of you are expecting presents from your parents and many of you will not be satisfied and grateful with just a small and inexpensive present. Children today are not happy with a book or something practical like a pair of shoes and clothing.
These are things you expect your parents to provide anyway, no, children want the latest mobiles and electrical gadgets, a computer, or whatever new technology is available on the market. And they demand these things without thinking if their parents can actually afford them.
For many parents, Christmas can be a time of sorrow and stress. After buying new brand named clothes for Christmas and the Christmas shopping to feed the family over the holidays, they just don't have the extra money to buy presents for their children, but they donít want their children to feel that they have less than their friends so very often Christmas is a time when they borrow money just to please the needs and demands of modern day children.
Christmas, has become a commercial holiday. The shops are staying open later and later so that they can take our money. For them it is a time to cash in on the seasonal madness that has taken oven everyone. We has been brainwashed with a western commercial idea of what Christmas is.
Commercials on the television continually tell us that we need to buy their products and we can buy them at a discount of 50% off or buy one and get one free. Much of our brainwashing comes from the Christmas films that we see over the Christmas season which have nothing to do with the Christmas story but are centred on childrenís letter to Santa Claus and what they want to receive from him. Film makers have dreamed up a fantasy character which keeps growing every year with various stories of Santa, his wife, his elves, reindeers and now we have Santaís brother.
More children believe in Santa Claus than in Jesus. The real meaning of Christmas has been completely forgotten and it has become a non-religious holiday! Christmas Day has become a day for opening presents, for family to get together for the Christmas Turkey lunch, to have a few drinks and then watch television.
So why do we do all these things? What have all these things got to do with Christmas? Well in part, it is not wrong. We should celebrate Christmas, we should give presents, but we shouldnít demand or expect to receive them. Christmas a very special day of celebration, but we should celebrate it understanding why it is a special day and not for the commercial holiday that it has become.
Adults often takes things for granted, but children have very inquisitive minds and they often ask why this and why that. And this is absolutely correct. You must ask why in everything that you do. There is an answer for most things in life, but you wonít receive it unless you ask why. How many of you have asked why do we celebrate Christmas? Iím sure you all know the Nativity story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to pay their taxes and because there was no room in the inn Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a stable and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. But Christmas is not just a remembrance of a historical event or the annual celebration of Jesusí Birthday: it is much much more. For humanity to celebrate this event for 2000 years means that Jesus was a very special and extraordinary person with a very special mission and message for each and everyone of us.
Why was he special and what is this message? We are told this by the angels who appeared to the simple shepherds who were watching their flock. He told them ďFear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.Ē The key words in this message are Saviour and Christ the Lord. A saviour is born. But for a saviour to be born it means that we are in need of being saved. So now we have more questions to ask Ė What does Christ the Lord mean and what are we to be saved from, why do we need to be saved? Christ the Lord means the Messiah who is God. God has become a man. But again why did God become man?
The answers to all the questions will not be found in the Nativity story but in the first Book of the Old Testament - in Genesis. Here we are told how God created the heavens and the earth and all the universe and how he created life on earth and then how he created man whom he created above everything else and made him in his image and likeness. If we do not understand the story of Adam and Eve then we cannot understand Christmas or any other religious event in the Churchís cycle. Everything we believe in has its roots in the story of the first man.
God created Adam very different to what we are today. He was created immortal, in other words he could live forever without becoming old or ever becoming ill. Adam lived in paradise and could speak with God and feel his presence. And he could have remained like this for all eternity under one condition. He had to freely accept and obey Godís will. To put him to the test God told him not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree that was in the Garden of Eden. It was a simple command and he had the choice of every other tree in the garden to eat from. This is not the time for me to tell you every detail of the story so I will keep it short with just the basics. Adam disobeyed Godís commandment and that meant that he rebelled against God. He could no longer live in paradise with God and was cast out to live on earth. His separation from God and his expulsion from paradise resulted in him losing immortality. He could only live the immortal life as long as he was with God, but now distant from God his body changed and was in a state of death. In other words his body began to age and this eventually brought about his bodily death.
We are Adamís Children and have inherited from him the consequences of his sin. We are born knowing that one day we will die. But our true nature how God created man is to live immortal. Our true home is not here on earth but in paradise and somehow we need to return to our true home and nature. We could not do this on our own. Only God could help us return and he promised man that one day he would send a saviour who would help us to make this happen. This promise was repeated many times in the Old Testament through the prophecies of the Prophets of Israel. He promised them a Messiah who would come and save them from death. This Messiah would not be just a man but God himself who would become a man to show us what to do so that we can once again re-enter the lost paradise.
Christmas then is the celebration of the birth of the Jesus Christ who is the expected Messiah and the beginning of Godís promise to mankind for salvation. Christ is also called the New Adam because he is a new beginning for man. With his life on earth Christ showed us that it is possible to live without sin and taught us what to do to gain immortal life. He told us to follow him and live according to the way of life he set as a pattern for us to copy. Many people didnít believe that Christ was the Messiah and wanted him to be killed. The Jews of his time eventually found a way to have him crucified, but even though he died on the Cross his human body was resurrected. Why this happened has again to do with the story of Adam but I will leave answering this question for another time, maybe closer to Easter which is more appropriate.
But we still need to ask how this has saved us. Well with Christ being resurrected from the dead he now had an immortal body similar and better than the original body that Adam had. This new resurrected human body was now able to re-enter paradise and this is exactly what Christ did: he took the human body back to paradise and back to God. We are saved because as baptized Christians we become partakers of Christ and his body. We put on Christ when we are baptized and become partakers of his death and resurrection and then when we have Holy Communion we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ and thus join ourselves to his resurrected body which is in paradise. Of course there is much more to our salvation. What I have said is just the basics so that you will understand the process by which we are saved.
Christmas then is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus our saviour because on this day salvation was seen not only as a promise that God made to Israel in the Old Testament but was seen as a reality in bodily form. Christís birth brings hope for our rebirth and our return to paradise and our return to God. Man now has a reason for living, he can rejoice because his salvation is no longer a promise, it is no longer just a hope, but a reality.
This is the real meaning of Christmas. It is indeed a very special day for mankind and therefore a reason for great rejoicing. The presents that we give to each other also take on a new meaning if we understand who we are giving them to. In the Nativity story we see the Wise men who brought with them gifts to worship a newborn King. These wise men came from the east probably Persia. They were very important people and some say they were themselves Kings while others say they were High Priests. They were very educated men and were well learned in astrology which they probably used in their religious practices. They observed in the sky, a star which was very different from anything else they had seen before and came to the conclusion that it meant the birth of the very special King of the Jews and decided to come to Jerusalem to worship him. This tells us that they recognized the newborn king as being a divine person, someone completely new for mankind in the same way the star was something new and had never been seen before. Their presents, which were Arabian gifts, also denote that they were coming to worship a God. Incense is what you offer to God and Myrrh, a fragrant oil, was again used as incense or as a perfume and was used to perfume the dead before their burial and gold is the gift for Kings.
But its time to ask questions again. The nativity story tells us that the star appeared in the East so how did the wise men know to come to Jerusalem. Itís very probable that the star guided them to Jerusalem. This is a very strange star. It appears, disappears, moves in various directions and can stop whenever it wants to and shine down on what it wants. Its brightness can even be seen in the daytime and is not dimmed by the brightness of the sun. This is definitely not a comet or a super nova as some suppose. It is telling the wise men where to go and where to look for the God that has been born a human being. The star is not only a cosmic phenomenon, it is a heavenly messenger, an angel sent by God to proclaim the glad tidings of the incarnation of the Son of God.
The wise men brought gifts to Jesus as a sign of their respect and recognition that he was God, but why do we give presents to each other on Christmas day? Christmas is the day we celebrate Jesusí birthday so why do we receive presents as if it were our birthday. Well in reality it is our birthday as well. As I said earlier, when we were baptized we became partaker of Christ. One of the hymns we sing during baptism which we also sing on Christmas day is ďAs many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.Ē Thus in everyone we see the image of Christ and give them presents at Christmas as though it was their birthday. We give a present to a friend but in reality we are giving the present to Christ because our friend is in the image of Christ.
Christmas then is not about receiving presents but rather in giving presents and especially giving to those who are in need because by giving to them we are at the same time giving to Christ.
The nativity story has many things to teach us and today we have touched just a small part of its total understanding. I could have told you about Maryís part in the story of manís salvation which would not have been possible if she had said no to the angel who told her she had been chosen to be the Mother of God. I could have told you why God chose to be born in a cave which was used as a stable for animals and why he allowed himself to be placed in a manger which is where the animals ate their straw. He was born in the humblest of places without the comfort of a house or rather a palace which is where we would expect a king to be born. These are things you can ponder on and which I can tell you about next Christmas if Iím asked to come again.
But today I want to finish with why we must have peace and love for each other. God became man to save mankind but at the same time his birth reveals his great love for us. He became man knowing that he would be crucified and die for us. There is no greater love than to give your life as a gift to save others and this is what Christ did: he gave his life as a gift so that we could be saved and have eternal life. These are the things we must remember at Christmas: all the other things we associate with Christmas, the decorations, the Christmas trees, the lights, the cards, the wrapping paper etc do not help us understand the true meaning of Christmas and in fact become like blinds that we put in front of our eyes to keep us from seeing the truth.
After the angel told the shepherds about the birth of Christ, a multitude of angels appeared praising God and saying ďGlory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.Ē This is what we must do on Christmas day: we must go to Church and praise God for his wonderful gift that he has given us. We too must sing with the angels ďGlory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.Ē And if we have truly put on Christ we should also have his love for all people. And if we love all people then truly there will be peace on earth and goodwill for all men. Amen.