December 24: Advent Calendar
The real meaning of Christmas
TODAY is the last day of Advent, and tonight is Christmas Eve.
The reflection below is from Freeing Jesus. You can also LISTEN to an expanded version of it from Riverside Church’s devotional podcast Be Still and Go. The Riverside audio (from December 2019) includes music from A Charlie Brown Christmas! CLICK HERE to listen.
My first recollection of hearing Jesus called “Savior” comes from a mundane source — A Charlie Brown Christmas, the classic holiday cartoon, first aired on television in 1965. I was six, my little brother four, and my sister a toddler. We gathered around the new color television, turned to CBS, and watched. Poor Charlie Brown! No one remembered the true meaning of Christmas. He was so depressed! At the climax of the show, he cried out in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
His friend Linus stepped on stage and recited verses from Luke 2: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not . . . for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”
I looked over to the manger scene, newly purchased from Sears, that was set up in the living room. Mary, in her blue cloak, was on her knees leaning reverently toward her infant son, who was lying in a cradle of straw.
Baby Jesus the Savior? My family did not talk this way, quoting scripture like that. People at my church would have shied away from expressing such religious sentiment in prime time — these words belonged in a pulpit or Sunday school classroom. I had no idea what I needed to be saved from and no clue what it meant, but it was a mysterious-sounding word, mesmerizing even. I liked it — “Savior” — and somehow I intuited what Linus was saying. This was the true meaning of Christmas. Born this day, a Savior. Born to Mary, born into each heart.
To understand at six and to understand when you are older are, of course, two different things, but learning a single word is often an invitation into a deeper faith, to go on a journey with an insight, an idea, a possibility. At six, “Savior” invited me to wonder, to love Christmas. Eventually, “Savior” would prove the door into a much more encompassing faith.
From Freeing Jesus — A personal note: this chapter is one of my favorites in the book. In it, I explore how I thought of “savior” then and what I think it means now. I hope you’ll read it — it is tender, gracious, theologically open, and inviting, not narrow as some people too often (and sadly) define Jesus as savior.
Roman imperial theology is the oppositional context for much of early Christian language about Jesus. The gospels, Paul’s letters, and the other New Testament writings use the language of imperial theology, but apply it to Jesus. Jesus is the “Son of God” — the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Lord” — the emperor is not. Jesus is the “Savior” who brings “peace on earth” — the emperor is not.
— Marcus Borg
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.
— George Herbert
Salvation is not a transaction to get to heaven after death; rather, it is an experience of love and beauty and of paradise here and now. No single metaphor . . . can truly describe this. We need a prism of stories to begin to understand (what “Savior” means) and a lifetime to experience it.
— Diana Butler Bass
THANK YOU for joining me at The Cottage this Advent season — I’m grateful for old friends, faithful readers, newcomers, and those who occasionally dropped by during this project of daily December posts.
I’m particularly thankful for my Jewish readers and searching post-Christian or post-religious friends who let me know they appreciated many of the reflections — that was a delightful surprise!
To everyone: Your encouragement and support have meant a great deal to me personally in these difficult days.
I pray these reflections have enriched these weeks for you — and deepened your experience of God’s presence and love, the One who is with us in our hurting world. May peace and joy find their way to your heart through these long nights.
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