IDEMA: Christmas is not about the stuff!

I began to hear Christmas music in stores even before Thanksgiving. The Christmas music you usually hear in the malls and supermarkets is rather secular — "Jingle Bells" and the like — pretty tame stuff with no religious message. Much of it is awful, especially in the supermarket renditions.
Dec 21, 2012


But, mercifully, it stops the day after Christmas — when the season has only begun! No Christmas music for all the returns.

It is obvious why we are besieged with this music so early. The merchants want us to get in the mood to buy stuff.

Black Friday has spilled over into Thanksgiving itself, with Black Thursday. The word "black" refers to the hopes of the merchants' bottom lines.

I enjoy buying gifts as much as the next person, but the commercialization of Christmas has gotten a bit out of hand, don't you think? 

Where did the custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas come from anyway? Read the second chapter of Matthew: The "wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,  'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.'" 

The text continues with their journey to Bethlehem: "When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense, and myrrh" (2:1-2).

Myrrh is a spiny shrub used for incense and perfume. Its symbolism in Matthew, once we understand it, introduces a jarring note into a scene of celebration. John Henry Hopkins Jr., the writer of the both the music and lyrics of the Ephiphany hymn, "We Three Kings," poetically uses this symbolism: "Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb."  Hardly the message we associate with Christmas — and the season that follows it after 12 days, Epiphany.

Thus, Jesus' mission, which led to the Cross, is alluded to at the very beginning of Matthew by the gift of myrrh, used in burials.

And what was this mission? Luke is very clear about this in his fourth chapter when Jesus read these words from Isaiah during worship in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." Luke then reports Jesus saying, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Then his fellow citizens of Nazareth tried to kill him!

This note of violence in the fourth chapter of Luke contrasts with the hope of peace in Luke's second chapter when the angels cry out to the shepherds, while announcing Jesus' birth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased" (2:14).

So, Christmas has a much deeper meaning than exchanging gifts. Christmas offers hope to the poor and those in prisons and held captive. Christmas offers hope to those who need healing. Christmas offers peace to a war-torn world. 

Christmas also alludes — with the gift of myrrh — to the ultimate destiny of Jesus, who brings us this hope, and the sacrifice he would make to give hope to a world filled with so much darkness and death.

So, on Christmas Day, give thanks for the greatest gift of them all: hope.

— A special pre-Christmas column by the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist



I agree that the trend has become more and more material. However do not forget many good people celebrate the tradition of Christmas without the religious side. Decorating trees, lights, Exchange of gifts. In much the way many good Christian people put on costumes, carve pumpkins and trick or treat, without celebrating the pagan religion.


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