How many times will we speak that phrase, give that blessing, to friends, family, and strangers? Every year I say it hundreds of times to parishioners as we leave this service. What do we mean by these simple yet profound words of greeting, parting, joyful delighting, and blessing? Merry Christmas…
Like all words, the meaning does depend somewhat on the context and the relationship. The merry Christmas I say to the cashier in the store is different from the merry Christmas I say to my children on Christmas morning. The former might be almost the same as a casual “have a nice day.” The latter is really another version of “I love you.” But there is something special about saying “Merry Christmas” that makes it more than just a seasonal substitute for something else. This day, this season, is about a miracle. And whether the person saying it believes in Jesus Christ or not, “Merry Christmas,” conveys something of the miraculous and magical. It’s a phrase that carries some hope and wonder with it. And this is the one time of the year when we get to share this special greeting with one another. It’s really more than a greeting…it’s a blessing.
There has been controversy in recent decades about saying “Merry Christmas.” Some people take offense, because they do not celebrate Christmas. I don’t want to get into all that, except to say that if we mean to give our Merry Christmas as a blessing, and someone does not receive it as a blessing, then maybe we can find some different words that feel more like a blessing. Maybe this sermon will give us some ideas. Certainly we can find something less generic and bland than Happy Holidays.
What I find more uncomfortable than whether or not to say “Merry Christmas” is the fact that while we are having our celebrations and feasts and opening of presents, there are many people who are not celebrating. They much more resemble the holy family of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus with no room in the inn. Tonight we remember that there are people who have been driven from their homes by war and strife. There are people who are in the hospital hanging on for dear life. There are people who wanted to be here tonight but who felt so sad they could not face the crowd. There are people for whom there is no room in the inns of society, who are pushed to the margins, who are forgotten and alone. I was reminded of this again as I read a meditation about Christmas by the theologian, Howard Thurman, who was writing about this in the early 1950’s. By the way, give yourself a little Christmas gift and go look up Howard Thurman. He is one of those lesser known giants upon whose shoulders we stand today. Thurman wrote this: “There is a strange irony in the usual salutation, “Merry Christmas,” when most of the people on this planet are thrown back upon themselves for food which they do not possess, for resources that have long since been exhausted, and for vitality which has already run its course.” Thurman names that uncomfortable feeling that many of us have when we say, “Merry Christmas,” that feeling and knowing that for many of us, this holiday is not a merry time, not a happy occasion. But then he goes on to say this: “Despite this condition, the inescapable fact remains that Christmas symbolizes hope even at a moment when hope seems utterly fantastic.” Christmas symbolizes hope even when hope seems like a fairy tale.
Maybe there is a way to offer the blessing of “Merry Christmas” that holds the tension between hope and despair, a way that feels more authentic and less like mere sentiment.
The word, “Merry” comes from middle English roots that mean pleasing or agreeable. No surprise there. Most of the time, that’s what we mean: have a pleasing Christmas with lots of what you enjoy. If we go back a step further in the etymology, though, we find that the word which came to mean pleasing or agreeable came from another word which meant brief or short. The sense is that what is pleasing is that which makes the time seem short, that which is so enjoyable that the time passes without our even knowing it. A merry Christmas could be seen, then, as a timeless Christmas, a Christmas in which the time seems hardly noticeable. And as we wait for the return of Christ, for the rebirth of his salvation, we pray that the time seems short. Paul’s letter to Titus that we heard this evening puts it this way: “We wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and savior.” Merry Christmas could mean that as we wait for the Christ, as we wait for the ultimate reconciliation between us and God and each other, the time would not grind along but would seem brief, because we are having such a good time being in a community that follows Jesus together. Merry Christmas, as we celebrate the first birth of Christ, may the time of waiting for his return seem brief.
When we scratch beneath the surface of Merry Christmas, we discover meanings that lead us to a more profound blessing of one another.
Merry Christmas…May you believe with the poet prophet Isaiah whom we also heard tonight, may you believe in his words of hope written centuries before the birth of Christ, that the people who walked in darkness can see a great light. Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas…as you wait in timeless hope, may you also know the anticipation that is like a child’s waiting for the presents on Christmas morning. May you know the greater and even more amazing anticipation of a mother waiting to go into labor. May you know the joy, relief and wonder that she feels after the baby is born, a feeling and a knowing that persists amidst exhaustion and pain. Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas…may you know the excitement of the shepherds as they heard the angels sing. May you have their determination and urgency to seek the Christ within you as they sought the baby wrapped in cloths lying a manger. Can you imagine how crazy that search must have been? Be that crazy…Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas…may you know the heavenly and unexplainable peace of the baby Jesus swaddled in bands of cloths and lying in that feeding trough. May you know the gentle grace of the animals who let the son of God share their dinner tray! Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas…may you have the audacity to proclaim with the angels the good news of peace on earth…peace for all the people, not just some; peace which is not just the absence of conflict but peace which is fulfillment of God’s delight in us, which is wholeness and health. Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas…as Joseph was subject to the decree of Caesar, and as you weight the rights and responsibilities of your earthly citizenship, may you know that the peace which earthly leaders promise is nothing compared to the peace of Christ. And as Joseph accompanied Mary in her time of vulnerability, may you stand with those who are vulnerable, with those who have no one to stand with them. Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas…may you ponder and treasure the words of God’s promises in your heart like Mary – not knowing fully what they mean but caring for them and letting them grow inside you like a child waiting to be born. Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas…so much could be contained in those two little words or some version of them. As we offer them to one another, as we bless each other with them this night and throughout this season, may we offer them as what Howard Thurman described as “a margin of hope in the presence of desolation, pestilence, and despair.” May our “merry Christmas” be a margin of hope in the presence of desolation, pestilence, and despair. As we say these words to ourselves, blessing our own hearts and each other’s hearts with them, may we feel in their soulful echo the vibration of a divine and saving love. A love that had the power and astounding humility to be born among us. Merry Christmas.