Piel: Where do you find the heart of Christmas?

Our neighbor George was recently discussing the various aspects of the holiday called Christmas. In the midst of it all, he asked, Where do you find the heart or soul of Christmas?

What do you mean by the “heart of Christmas” I asked?


He added that we need to face the fact that even for religious people who feel better saying Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays, Christmas means different things to different people. In response I added that I often use the term “Celebrating Nativity” rather than celebrating Christmas. Maybe it is because I am not sure what the word “Christmas” means but I know what the word “Nativity” means to me.

Followers of Jesus who call themselves “disciples” enjoy “holiday Christmas” as much as anyone. The difference may be that in the midst of it all we discover “Nativity” once again. Nativity happened two thousand years ago and it is born again when we open our heart to the gift of light and life.

We may not want to hear it but there are many folks who don’t need Jesus in order to celebrate. It’s not that they are against him or against religion or the way we celebrate. It is simply that there are other things in the holiday that are more important.

The one that gets to me, George added, are the folks who want a “little bit of Jesus” thrown in to make their holiday seem a bit more religious. They say “the reason for the season is Jesus” as if that is enough and then go on with their traditional celebration. There is no such thing as a “little bit of Jesus” in the same way you can’t keep the “silent night-holy night” Jesus babe forever. Hymn writer Jane Parker Huber wrote “As God’s own person here on earth, Christ came to show us human worth so Jesus cannot stay a child, dependent, gentle, meek and mild.” Christmas is about radical love. It is about breaking down walls and barriers that separate us one from another. Do you think that Jesus would have been murdered if he remained a sweet, lovable child confronting no one?

For the second straight year, Friendship Baptist Church collected donations for Operation Christmas Child. Not only do church volunteers collect the donations, they have a packing party event. This year, they were able to fill more than 1,300 boxes.

A congregation recently had a “birthday party for Jesus” where they sang “happy birthday” to him. Someone even made a “Jesus birthday cake” that they all enjoyed. Then they distributed gifts to one another. What about a gift for Jesus? What kind of gift would Jesus like to have? It is his birthday!

In order to find an “appropriate gift” or the “heart” of Christmas I believe we must understand the “vision” of Jesus. We are invited (or even commanded) to share his vision (or was it his ministry) where earth-people live in peace and harmony with one another. We are invited to make his prayer a reality: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As the hands and feet of Jesus how do we bring heaven to earth? How do we expand the circle of caring beyond racial, national or political boundaries?

At the “heartbeat” of Christmas is the realization that the celebration is for everyone, not just Christians. We may own Christmas but we don’t own Nativity. Rick Warren in his book “The Purpose of Christmas” wrote “It doesn’t matter whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon or have no religious background at all. God didn’t send Jesus to bring us religion! He came to make a relationship with God possible.”

We can read the Nativity story with our reason and learn all of the writer’s details (even if they were written 25 or 30 years after the resurrection). But sometimes I believe we understand it better if we read Nativity as metaphor and mystery. Maybe it is more meaningful if we experience it for ourselves. Pope Francis wrote “Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology, but rather ‘a way,’ a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way we go, by walking.” Along with Mary and Joseph we are the ones who must make the tiresome and dangerous walk to Bethlehem. We are the weary ones who hear the words “no room!” We are the ones who need to get inside the cave and experience the humility of the manger for ourselves. We need to become Joseph with his fear and Mary with her amazement. We need to experience what it feels like when one night we have to quickly pack up all our belongings like Joseph, Mary and an infant Jesus and flee for our lives becoming aliens in a foreign land.

After we read and digest the Nativity story in Matthew and Luke where do we go from there? Do we box it up waiting until it comes around again? For some it is a once a year celebration!

On the other hand, we are called to live Nativity all year long. It is the message of the lion and the lamb come true. For me it was the child receiving September “Back to School items” from The Shepherd’s Staff saying, “It feels like Christmas!” Christmas cannot be isolated to an event that happened two-thousand years ago. It happens every time someone opens his or her heart in (radical) love.

For George, Nativity is the story of darkness and light. We all have experienced darkness in our lives. We all have walked “through the valley of shadows.” We all have had “inn doors” slammed in our face. Jesus not only teaches about light he brings light. John in his gospel speaks about light and darkness: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (1.5) Light not only dispels the dark but the true light cannot be overcome by darkness. Our hope is based on the eternal light.

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