Many of us took advantage of the mild weather this fall to string lights on our trees and place inflatable figures on our lawns. For weeks we shopped and baked, shopped and planned, shopped and wrapped, shopped and cooked, shopped and…shopped. We hosted or attended gatherings with friends and family, made even more special by memories of recent holidays when we couldn’t be together. We worshiped on Christmas Eve, carrying on the traditions that mean so much to us. Then it was Christmas Day. The presents were opened, the cookies were eaten, the feast was served, and then…it was over.
Now, here we are, on the day after Christmas. Maybe you’re feeling a sense of relief and are ready to catch your breath. Or, maybe you’re feeling a touch of melancholy about going back to the same old same old. But, however we’re feeling about it on the day after Christmas, the fact is that we leave the excitement behind and return to our ordinary routines.
The shepherds had to do that, too. They had gone to Bethlehem to see the thing that the angels had announced and sung about: a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger—a baby who was the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. What they found was exactly as it had been told to them. It must have been so tempting to stay there in the stable with the miracle that they alone were privy to.
But, eventually, they had to leave. The sheep needed food and water and protection. The shepherds had to appease their bosses about their impromptu time off. So, with one last look at the baby in Mary’s arms, the shepherds left the stable and returned to their everyday lives. It must have been a real letdown, after all the excitement.
The wise men also had to return to their own country. Their experience had been different from the shepherds’. The shepherds had that intense and terrifying moment of the angel suddenly appearing before them, with the glory of the Lord shining more brilliantly than the 25,000 lights Chevy Chase strings up in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” After that, Luke tells us, the shepherds went “with haste” to Bethlehem. But the magi—that was a different story. They had to plan and prepare for their visit.
We don’t know where the magi came from; scholars name several possible points of origin. We also don’t know how many magi made the trip. Scripture tells us there were three gifts, so the tradition is that there were three magi to deliver them. For argument’s sake, let’s say there were the traditional three and that they came from Babylon, which is one of the possibilities.
Have you ever planned a long trip by car at Christmas for a group of family members and friends? Once you’ve all agreed on the destination, you have to figure out how long it will take to get there and back, and how long you’ll stay. You have to map out your route, planning where you’ll eat and refuel and maybe stay overnight—especially important if you’re driving an electric car. You stock up on snacks and drinks, and maybe some travel games to keep everyone occupied. You arrange coverage for your work or volunteer responsibilities. You make sure your pets will be cared for, and you have the car serviced and gassed up. You get your gifts ready, and you pack your belongings. It can be quite a project.
Babylon is about 800 miles away from Jerusalem. It took the prophet Ezra four months to make that trip. Imagine what it took for the magi to undertake such a journey.
Before they even set out, there must have been days of discussion and deliberation about what the star meant before the decision was made to find the new king. Once the decision was made, there were pack animals and provisions to purchase and gifts to buy. There were porters and animal handlers to be hired. They had to plan for the care of their families and businesses during what would be a nearly year-long absence. After all, travel time alone would have eaten up eight months, not counting the time they spent in Jerusalem with Herod and the time it took to get to Bethlehem after Herod recalculated their route and their Global Positioning Star guided them to the house where Jesus and Mary were. During their months of preparation and traveling, their excitement must have grown day by day.
Finally, they arrive at their destination. Overwhelmed with joy, they kneel down, pay homage to this unlikely king, and present their gifts. And then, Matthew tells us, they left. They left for their own country by another road.
We can see ourselves in the shepherds’ return to their sheep and the magi’s return to their own country. Because after every December 25th, there’s a December 26th. As Christmas Day draws to a close, all our planning and gift-giving, travelling and hosting—all the excitement and the beauty of the season—seem to come to a screeching halt when we wake up on the day after Christmas.
But for the Church, Christmas Day is anything but an ending. In the short term, it’s actually the beginning of the Christmas season or Christmastide. In the Church calendar, the twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and last until the night before Epiphany. The day of Epiphany itself—January 6—is the day when the Christmas season ends.
But for Christians, there is no end to Christmas. The birth of the baby in Bethlehem wasn’t an ending, and neither is our celebration of it. What our Bishop Gregory Palmer describes as “the call of Christmas” began with the birth of the Christ Child, and Christ continues to call us after the celebrations are over. The question is, “How do we respond to this call? How can our lives become a never-ending Christmas?”
The shepherds can give us some clues, because we know something of what they did when they left the stable. First, they told everyone about the miraculous baby and what they had been told about him. Can you imagine their excitement as they shared their story with the friends they ran into in Bethlehem, or the stranger sitting next to them as they grabbed a drink at the local inn, or maybe even their bosses, as they explained why they were AWOL from the flock. They had had a personal encounter with the Messiah—with God! No wonder everyone they told was amazed. They had an amazing story to tell, and they told it to anyone who would listen.
Second, they responded by glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen. They didn’t stop with simply telling people about the miraculous events they had witnessed. They gave the credit to God. They acknowledged that it was God who sent the angel. It was God at the center of the heavenly host’s glorious songs of praise. It was God who had come to them—a bunch of shepherds whom most people would have looked down on. It was God all along, and they accompanied their story of encountering the baby in the manger with songs of praise.
We can take a page out of their book. We have a story to tell, too. Each of us, in our own way, has seen the Christ Child. We have met the Savior. We’ve heard the good news of grace and forgiveness and eternal life made possible by the birth of the baby Jesus. But, there are people in this world who haven’t yet heard this good news, and God has made us into modern-day shepherds with a story to tell, to anyone who will listen, about a God who deserves to be glorified, not just by our praise but by our lives.
There’s a lot of skepticism in the world, and some people will listen to you with raised eyebrows and a smirk. But someone you tell will be hurting. Someone you tell will be feeling weak, or lost, or alone. When you tell them what you have seen and heard, they will be amazed. And they will be comforted. And they will feel loved. And they will want to know this God whom you praise and glorify.
We don’t know anything at all about what happened to the magi after they returned home. A number of traditions and stories have grown up around these mysterious visitors. But there are two things we do know.
One is that they were overwhelmed with joy when the star led them to Jesus. In my experience, joy changes us. Joy doesn’t leave us unaffected. We can only speculate how the magi’s joy might have changed them, but the joy of knowing Jesus has the power to change us. It makes us see the world in a new way. It casts out disillusionment and discouragement and despair. It warms our own hearts so that we can extend that warmth to others. Joy opens us up, so that through us, others will be drawn to God’s kingdom, as people shivering in the cold darkness are drawn to the light and warmth of a cheerful fire.
Secondly, the magi acknowledged Jesus as a king. We don’t know what kind of king they thought he was. But they knelt before him. They honored him. They gave him gifts—costly gifts that affirmed who they believed he was. We do know what kind of King he is. He’s our King—the King of all creation and the King of each of our hearts. In our never-ending Christmas, we constantly keep our hearts in a kneeling position—always recognizing Jesus as the Lord of our lives.
We have gifts to bring him, too—valuable gifts. Of course, we bring our financial gifts, giving back to him what is already his anyway. But we also give him the gift of ourselves. We give him our talents and abilities to strengthen his Church. We give him our voices to call for justice and compassion in the Church and in the public sphere. We give him our hearts to mold and heal so that we can offer healing to others. We give him what we have, and our gifts are fit for a king.
There’s one more person in the story who shows us how to keep a never-ending Christmas, and that’s Jesus himself. Not Jesus as an adult, who taught and modeled the kingdom way of life, but Jesus as the helpless infant lying in his manger crib.
As a new grandmother, babies and their needs are taking up a lot more of my mental real estate these days. I’m more attuned to how babies make their needs known and what can satisfy their needs. Baby Jesus had the same needs as any other baby. And like other babies, Jesus would have cried. The carol says “the little Lord Jesus no crying he made,” but I’m pretty sure Mary would have laughed out loud at that.
I imagine that the nights in the stable were not so silent, because babies cry. Babies cry when they’re hungry or thirsty. They cry when they’re tired or uncomfortable. They cry when they’re frightened or in pain. Sometimes babies cry simply because they’re lonely; they need to feel close to someone they trust.
Each time their physical needs are met, their trust in their caregiver grows. Their trust grows when their fear and pain are eased. It grows as they learn they can depend on someone to love and protect them, and find rest in the arms that hold them.
We are surrounded by people who are as vulnerable as newborns. They may be sitting next to you without your realizing it. Maybe you’re one of them yourself. They may not be sobbing on the outside, but they are hungry and thirsty for meaning and acceptance. They’re frightened because daily survival is a struggle, or because the future just seems so uncertain. They’re crying out for a connection with someone they can trust. The pain can be physical or emotional, mental or spiritual, but it is real.
Those who are crying out need to know the one in whom the hopes and fears of all the years are met. They need to know Jesus. Jesus was a fully human infant crying out in need. Jesus is also fully God who meets those needs. God meets our needs as a loving parent meets the needs of a crying newborn, and our hurting world needs to know this God who came to us in Jesus.
The way it comes to know Jesus is through us—shepherds who tell our stories, magi whose lives have been changed by joy. As the speaker in our recent Bible Study video said, just as Immanuel is “God with us,” we are to be the presence of Immanuel for others.
The world is crying out with needs not so different from the needs of any newborn, and we’ve been given the privilege of offering them loving care—the same care that our Loving Parent gives us. So, we offer food and drink to the physically hungry and thirsty, and the bread of life and living water of Jesus to the spiritually hungry. We hold people close, offering a place where they can feel safe and secure, as a baby feels secure in its swaddling clothes. We reflect the steadfast love of God for us and our confidence that God is with us always.
We can do this because, for Christians, the gift-giving doesn’t end on Christmas Day. God continues to give us gifts every day of our lives: love, peace, joy, freedom, acceptance, strength, God’s constant presence with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. All these gifts are part and parcel of the greatest gift of all: eternal life with God. God holds out these gifts for us to receive every day when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Like the shepherds and the magi, eventually we need to get up from our place beside the manger and return to the world we know. It’s there that we show the world that Christmas is not a day or twelve days or four weeks or months of retail-inspired consumerism. Christmas is a way of life where the gift-giving and the gift-receiving never end.
The Reverend Dr. Howard Thurman describes this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”
This is the way we keep a never-ending Christmas. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young