Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Not if it’s a familiarity with Christmas.
While America and much of the world are focusing attention on the coming of the new president, little attention is paid to a gift not even the world’s richest person could pay for and which is even today not received by many to whom it is offered.
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. A look back at one of the greatest sermons ever preached about Christmas by the man credited with splitting Christianity from the dominant Roman Catholic Church seems appropriate.
Martin Luther’s understanding of what we euphemistically call “the real meaning of Christmas” was absolute. After underscoring the humble backgrounds of Mary and Joseph and noting how rich travelers stayed in far better surroundings than the stable the two who would become the world’s most famous couple were forced to occupy, Luther commented: “See, this is the first picture with which Christ puts the world to shame and exposes all it does and knows. It shows that the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes.”
Such a notion should humble a politician, even a president, if that were possible. And yet too many among us put more faith in “princes and kings” in the false hope he (or she) can deliver us, instead of the One who really can.
Luther strips away any notion of dignity or honor, which we commercially idealize in manufactured Nativity scenes, when he says of Mary and Joseph: “They had neither money nor influence to secure a room in the inn, hence they were obliged to lodge in a stable. O world, how stupid! O man, how blind thou art! But the birth itself is still more pitiful. There was no one to take pity on this young wife, who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition that she, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, without any one offering her service as is customary for women to do at such times.”
In the polar opposite of what humankind longs for in fame, riches and honor, Luther speaks of the lowly shepherds to whom the initial announcement of this unique birth was communicated: “Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men, and that very gladly. Here you see that his eyes look into the depths of humility, as is written, ‘He sitteth above the cherubim’ and looketh into the depths. Nor could the angels find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth. Could they not have addressed the high priests, who it was supposed knew so much concerning God and the angels? No, God chose poor shepherds, who, though they were of low esteem in the sight of men, were in heaven regarded as worthy of such great grace and honor.”
Next month, we will inaugurate another U.S. president. Pomp, ceremony and considerable ego will be on display. Two thousand years ago there was another “inauguration” of sorts, one whose goal is out of reach of the smartest political leader. That One had — and has — the power to transform lives and fit them for another world. It is a world, according to the baby born in Bethlehem of Judea who became a man and Savior to billions worldwide, that will — unlike this world and the little it offers — never pass away.