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Piel: ‘What does Jesus want for His birthday?’

Our neighbor George was recently talking to his friend who attended his granddaughter’s Sunday school Christmas party. He said the children gave gifts to one another, sang “happy birthday to Jesus,” and did a live nativity scene with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men and even some animals. At one point he added, he looked at his 10-year-old granddaughter, who seemed a little puzzled with the whole affair. Finally she said for all to hear, “whose birthday is it anyway?” and added “what does Jesus want for his birthday?”

We need to be very honest about this question. Many good people feel they don’t need to give anything to Jesus because we don’t actually know when he was born and the whole nativity story is an ancient tale that we should give lip service to. Or they have nothing against Jesus but have moved beyond celebrating Jesus to celebrating Christmas. Some may feel that Christmas has a life of its own without religious implications.

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For still others “what should I give to Jesus” is an interesting question. There is a hymn that goes “What can I give Him poor as I am, if I were a shepherd I would bring Him a Lamb, if I were a wise man, I’d surely do my part so what can I give Him, I’ll give Him my heart.”

What does it mean to give your heart to Jesus? A bumper sticker reminds us to “put Christ back into Christmas!” Sounds good, like “He is the reason for the season” but what do slogans like these really mean?

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Writer Mike Slaughter adds, “What God wants from us, for Jesus’ birthday and every day, is love. God craves that we return God’s scandalous love with our own, demonstrated by how we treat those in need.” Slaughter associates the word “love” with how we treat others.

Thomas Moore has an interesting take on Christmas: “People usually think of Christmas as a traditional and sentimental festival, but not as a celebration of the Jesus vision it commemorates: a philosophy of profound reform. The child lying in the manger would become perhaps the most radical of all spiritual visionaries, showing how to live more joyfully and communally.”

That’s why Moore can add “Jesus was addressing all people on the planet, not wanting them to join his organization but to adopt his vision for a better human race.” Moore associates the celebration of Christmas with the celebration of the vision of Jesus calling us to live both more joyfully and communally.

George raised the question, “is it possible that the celebration of the nativity of Jesus and his vision of how humanity is called to live is not the sole possession of the institutional Christian community but really belongs to everyone?” If we truly believe that Christmas belongs to everyone does that mean it belongs to agnostics or atheists or people of other religious faiths or being a secular humanist or a religious fundamentalist or a progressive (and the list goes on)? That is, “nativity should not be limited.” What did John mean when he wrote that “God loved the world so much that God gave?” God’s love was and is for the whole world not just for some little part of the world that lays claim to it.

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Is it possible that the heart of Christmas lies in two distinct but related issues? The first is love. We lead into what is often called the “great commandment” with these words: “we love because God first loved us.” (I John 4.19). “The commandment begins with a command “to love the Lord your God all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”(Matthew 22.37ff). But the love of God has a catch in it, to love God means, and here is where the second part of the “great commandment takes over” to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The New Testament writer of James adds these words “The commandment we have from God is this, those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4.21).

The second part of the heart of Christmas lies in believing that the word “love” is an action word meaning we are called to put love into daily life. Let me stress the words of a key prayer of Jesus that goes like this “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.10). The vision of Jesus is to put heaven on earth and I believe he willingly gave his life in that attempt.

How do we keep “love” alive in our lives and the vision of the “babe of Bethlehem” current? The words of Jesus in the synagogue may help (please make these personal) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.16ff).

The “son-rise” on Easter morning is a reminder that the vision has not been defeated. Writer Ann Weems has some interesting words about “after Christmas is over” when she wrote in her poem “Boxed.”

“I must admit to a certain guilt about stuffing the Holy Family into a box in the aftermath of Christmas ... and this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away, we’ll be more careful that the Peace and Good Will are not also boxed for another year.”

To celebrate the Nativity in Christmas we can box up the ornaments and all the material stuff we used to decorate with but we must keep the vision alive. It does not belong in a box.

This Christmas what is the gift he desires from you?

Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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