What may be the earliest recorded Christmas sermon on which the birthday of Christ was celebrated by the church on Dec. 25 was preached in the year 380. It was delivered by Gregory of Nazianzus.
Here is the first paragraph.
“Christ is born, glorify ye Him. Christ from heaven, go ye out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be ye exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O ye Matrons live as Virgins, that ye may be Mothers of Christ. Who doth not worship Him That is from the beginning? Who doth not glorify Him That is the Last?” (Gregory of Nazianzus, “On the Theophany)
There has always been a connection between Christmas (Dec. 25) and Epiphany (Jan. 6) and the “Twelve Days” that lie between. The title of this sermon concerns the theophany, which has led some to think it was delivered on Jan. 6, 381.
The “epiphany” or revealing of Christ as the Son of God was first celebrated by a heretical sect called the Basilidians to celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the late second century. In 361 the Emperor Julian referred to this as “the feast . . . celebrated by Christians as Epiphany”. In the Orthodox tradition, Jan. 6 is more important than Dec. 25.
It seems, then, that celebrating the birth of Christ has been controversial from the beginning. In a world where the physical and the flesh was considered inferior to the ethereal and the spiritual it makes sense why focusing on a physical birth would be frowned upon. I believe that both are wonderful parts of who we are and our story and should be properly celebrated.
What we also learn from Gregory, and nearly every Christmas sermon ever preached, is that the focus should be on the correct things. Christmas from that day to this has also been associated with too much partying, drunkenness (I have heard of a few infamous office parties), and materialism.
Here is what Gregory said, “Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin.” And he is just getting started here.
I may take issue with some of what Gregory says here. I like the lights and I look forward to the Advent and Christmas hymns. O.K., I even like “White Christmas.” His point, however, is the same one made by the quip — “Don’t forget the reason for the season.”
The most important thing he does in this sermon is to remove Jesus from the manger and call us to follow him to the cross. He reminds us of those infants in the area around Bethlehem that were murdered by Herod — which he calls us to hate. Then he relates the entire story of the life of Christ from his childhood to his resurrection.
He concludes, “If you are brought before Herod, do not answer the most part. He will respect your silence more than most people’s long speeches. . . Taste the gall, drink vinegar, accept blows, be crowned with thorns (that is, with the hardness of a godly life) . . . be crucified with him, share his death and burial gladly so that you may rise with him.”
This Christmas season is shaping up to be one like most of us have never seen. There is loneliness, frustration, and anxiety in abundance. There is fear, real and imagined, reigning in the lives of many. There is hope that it will all be over soon, but uncertainty if the help will arrive in time. This is a time to focus on what is important. Many families will have to be more intentional than in the past to connect and celebrate.
Some churches will gather; others will not. The same is true for our Jewish friends whose Hannukah is being disrupted. This is time for grace and light and life. This is a time to remember that out of the darkness the Light of the World shines and will not be extinguished. The way Christmas looks has changed much over the centuries. The need to remember what is important and the nature of the distractions has not.