Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen
Merry Christmas!! I have no idea how many times the greeting “Merry Christmas” has been exchanged among people in the whole world over in the last couple of days. Even though people exchange Christmas greetings in hundreds of different ways and languages, the English phrase “Merry Christmas” must be the most common and popular of all.
The word “Christmas” means “the festival of Christ”, and “merry” is coming from the old English word “miryge”, meaning “pleasing” or “delightful”. So, it is not wrong to say “Delightful Christmas” just like in Icelandic, instead of “Merry Christmas”.
I am not a native speaker of English, and have been feeling a sort of incompatibility, or discomfort, about the word “merry”. I learned that “merry” is an adjective which might be used to describe a scene such as people singing and dancing happily for example.
And if that is so, “Merry Christmas” sounds like we are all enjoying a happy gathering at the feast of Christmas.The original meaning might have been different, but I am rather sure that a considerable number of people use “Merry Christmas” in that sense today.
Christmas has developed, during the last 2000 years, into many different forms. In Iceland, Christmas has added an extra meaning, as an opportunity for family members to get together. In some part in the world, like in Japan, Christmas has developed as a cultural event more than a religious one. The Japanese celebrate Christmas, but without baby Jesus – just with Santa Claus.
The “business minds” of the world have certainly developed their own Christmas, urging you to spend more money around this feast, to consume. And in the process of developing in these different directions, the Christmas greeting “Merry Christmas” has begun to mean, more or less, “Have a happy gathering, singing and dancing!”
I am not going to judge these things. But I want to tell you that at such a time, every church in the world makes an effort trying to maintain the deepest, and most important, meaning of Christmas, remembering that is the saviour is coming to us; to me and to you, each of you.
Four years ago, before Christmas in 2014, I visited two Christian men at their apartment in Reykjavík. They were both asylum seekers, and had spent many years without belonging to any state. They were hopeless, very weighed down in their minds.
Their room was on top of the apartment complex, so we could see the beautiful Christmas lights of the town away in the darkness. They said: “You know…, we have nothing to do with Christmas. We are outside of it.” They were sitting in the darkness: not in their room, but in their minds. Obviously, the illumination of the lights didn’t reach into their hearts.
When I heard their words, I was visiting them to talk about their asylum cases, and was actually not ready to answer them immediately. I knew how hard the situation was for them, and I thought it was understandable that they should feel that way, excluded from Christmas. I got a heavy feeling in my heart, too, after that.
Recently, I heard same kind of talk from some of our people in the Seekers group. They were invited to a Christmas gathering the other day, but they said that they couldn’t really enjoy the opportunity. It was not at all a defect of the gathering itself, but simply because they weren’t in a state to enjoy such a happy time. That is also understandable. They were distracted by fear, and occupied by anxiety about their future. Would be able to stay in Iceland or not?
Here we can see once again the limitations of Christmas when understood as a happy gathering. A happy gathering cannot receive those who are in deep troubles. Even though it invites those troubled people kindly and warmly, they may not be able to enter the circle of laughter and good cheer.
This is not limited with to asylum seekers. Even if we look about us in Icelandic society, there are lots of people who sit in the darkness, haunted by some troubles, anxiety or grief. In the last Christmas period, 1,340 families, 3,500 individuals, got family support from the Church-aid only. There are many families that don’t have enough to eat in Christmas.
There are many families that have lost someone in the family near Christmas time, and they have to have the Christmas dinner with a vacant seat in their dining. There are also many people who struggle with difficult illnesses, not knowing if they will see next Christmas.
When we think about those people, it should not be difficult to imagine that there are many who are not in a state of mind to join the happy circle of a Christmas gathering. Then the question is this: Does Christmas have nothing to do with them?
The answer is of course: “Yes. Christmas has meaning for them, too!” Christmas is the festival celebrating the coming of Christ, his birth on earth. He has come into the world, first of all, to bring light to those who sit in darkness.
Do you remember what Jesus said after he visited Matthew, the tax collector and sinner? He said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. (…) I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”(Mt.9:12-13)
In the today’s text from Isaiah, it is said: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”(Isa.9:2) That was why God our Father sent his son into the world, among us, sinners.
This was a revolutionary thing indeed, and it turned everything up-side down. Because of the coming of Christ, those who had been seen as being the lowest in priority when it came to God’s salvation, came to be the highest. The last became the first. And we, gentiles, namely non-Jewish people, were also invited to that salvation by Jesus.
There is this episode in the Acts of the Apostles.
One day, a beggar who had been lame from birth met Jesus’ disciples, Peter and John, and asked for some money. Then Peter said him, instead giving him money: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And then “He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.”(Acts: 3:6)
He who had to live by begging every day was cured in the name of Jesus, and then he followed Peter and John, jumping and praising God.
This is how meeting Jesus changes our lives. This is how we respond to encountering Jesus. There are many stories of healing in the Gospels, but I took this episode because it expresses the joy of the healed one in the most vivid way. A great joy has been brought to a man who sat in the darkness all through his life, by meeting Jesus.
And the same joy was brought to so many people who also sat in the darkness in their lives. Jesus literally healed the illnesses of the people, but more fundamentally he heals our existence as sinners, our weakness as human persons. One of the manifestations of sin is to lose hope. The coming of Jesus gave hope to the hopeless.
All of this began at the Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus. It was to cause joy among the people of that time, and it still does today. And because of that, we celebrate Christmas.
So, it is not that Christmas is an occasion of a happy gathering for happy people. If it were just that, those who suffer in the darkness can never join it.
The thing is that Christmas was formed in the midst of those who were sat in the darkness. The joy of Christmas was born there, and spread out from there. The joy of Christmas comes from the people who were burdened in their minds, but saw hope in the coming of Jesus.
I would like you sincerely to remember that Christmas is not only for those who live happily today, but was originally aimed for those who thirst for hope and help in their reality. So it is even today.
But even though we remember this point, and understand that the light of Christmas lights up those who sit in darkness, it is not enough. We need to go one more step forward, where Christmas is about you yourselves, or me myself. Christmas lights up me and you, each of you.
Now forget about “the people” but concentrate on you yourself, please. Christ has come not for the human being, not for all the people, but he has come for you yourself.
I understand you find it difficult to connect yourself to the joy of Christmas if you are stuck in trouble or sorrow. You may find it impossible to identify with the guys whom Jesus healed in the Gospels, because you are still in trouble, and your troubles aren’t gone yet, despite Christmas coming.
I think that’s understandable. Many things are still incomplete, and we are still crying for help. Maybe we need to wait until Jesus’ return, when the kingdom of God will manifest here in this world. And then everything will be completed.
But the important thing for us today is that we have a promise from Jesus. And therefore we have hope in Jesus. The Gospel stories of Jesus’s healing are promises, from him, that we will all be cured from our illness and saved from our troubles when the time comes. These stories are given to us as a message from Jesus.
And the message is very simple: God cares about you. It’s not that God cares about people, but about YOU. Sometimes we need to stop generalizing things. Sometimes we need to make things personal, very personal.
Please take a moment of peace during this time of year, and think about it. This Christmas is given for you. Jesus is coming for you. Because God cares about you. This is the very point of Christmas.
When you catch meaning and hold it tight in yourself, then I believe that the greeting “Merry Christmas” will sound a bit different in your heart. It is not a notice of a happy gathering, but an expression of joy, knowing God cares about you and promises you his grace.
In that meaning, once again, Merry Christmas.
The Grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus -Amen
(flutt í jólamessu Alþjóðlega Safnaðarins í Breiðholtskirkju annan jóla 2018)