Despite the fact that stores have been putting up Christmas displays since Labor Day, Christmas still has a way of sneaking up on you. Suddenly, it’s the week before Christmas, and all through the house, chaos. There are decorations needing to be brought down from the attic. A tree that needs decorating (if not purchasing). Outdoor lights to be strung. And, presents to be wrapped, sent, and ordered. (Thank heaven for the internet and free shipping deals!)
Or, maybe your Christmas isn’t this busy. Maybe you’re one of those amazing people, like my late father, who used to write all his many Christmas cards the day after Thanksgiving, and mail them a week later. Or, maybe you’re one of those folks who bought most of your Christmas gifts while on vacation last summer. Or, maybe you’re one of those favored by the Christmas elves, who sneak into your house when all are asleep and decorate it for you.
My guess is, most of us think of Christmas as one long “To Do” list, a series of presents to buy and send, events to be attended, guests to prepare for, and meals to be planned, all the while having the sense that we should be happy, or, to use a more seasonally appropriate term, merry.
But, when you stop to think of it, one thing a “To Do” list does not do is make us happy, unless you count finishing it and throwing it out, completed. “To Do” lists are about responsibilities, obligations, and duties. Often, the longer our list is, the more important we think we are. Christmas has become a time to do many things, most of which are good, but it misses something, I think. Jesus’ word to Martha speak to how many of us can view Christmas.
You may recall the story. Mary sits and listens to Jesus teach, along with the rest of the disciples. Martha is fixing dinner for all of them, getting more and more upset that her sister isn’t helping her. She comes to Jesus troubled and angry, her “To Do” list weighing on her heavily. “Tell her to help me,” she says to Jesus. But Jesus has something else in mind. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things,” he tells her, “but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). The point of the story, of course, is that listening to Jesus is more important than cooking for him.
Our modern celebrations of Christmas often can forget that there were no “To Do” lists at the first Christmas. The young virgin, her betrothed, and the shepherds were not important, busy people, These were simple, unimportant people. In the Magnificat (Mary’s hymn of praise in Luke 1), Mary, rejoicing in God, marvels that God “has looked on the humble estate of his servant. . . for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49). As if that wasn’t enough, she goes on:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. . .” (Luke 1:51-53)
The Biblical Christmas reminds us of God’s compassion revealed to and through simple, common people, people whose “To Do” lists were short and unimpressive. Who weren’t terribly busy. The chances are, you wouldn’t have had to set up an appointment to get on any of their schedules.
Christmas has become a holiday requiring planning, effort, scheduling and “To Do” lists. We too often have forgotten that the first Christmas was a simple affair, where the only person who seemed to be busy was God. It is God in the person of the Angel Gabriel who announces to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist and to Mary the birth of Jesus. It is God, in the choir of angels, who tells the shepherds that they’ll find a great king in a Bethlehem stable. Since these people were simple people, since these people were not over-scheduled or overly-busy like ‘important’ people are, they had time to respond to God’s invitations. How would you like to have a baby, when you’ve given up all hope of ever having one? How would you like to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s Son? How would you like to see a king asleep in a barnyard?
We are so busy that we often miss God’s invitations. Certainly, they do not come to us as dramatically as they did to Mary or to the shepherds. But, God’s invitations to see His Son are present to us, nonetheless. Our schedule and our plans often cause us to miss seeing Jesus being born around us in the lives of our fellow Christians, our friends, our family members, our neighbors.
So, this Christmas, God invites you to put aside the “To Do” list, and listen for the singing of angels and the cries of the baby Christ. When we let go of our “To Do” list, when we can look past our own agendas and plans, we begin to see glimmers of angels and hear murmurs of heavenly choirs. Then, being merry is not a seasonal obligation, but spiritual reality.