NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 8, 2012

Getting into the Christmas spirit

In the Spirit
The Rev. Gwyneth Arrison

---- — The holidays are filled with expectations. TV commercials flash up pictures of happy children opening gifts, couples in love, friends connecting — promising us the same if we buy their products. Stores show us displays of holiday decorations that will create the picture-perfect Christmas. Our friends on Facebook post photo albums of their children hugging one another in front of their beautifully ornamented trees. Add onto that the nostalgia we may feel as some of us long to recreate our own childhood memories of the Christmas spirit.

Often we put ourselves into a frenzy over the holidays trying to gain just a glimmer of this Christmas spirit for ourselves and our families. But rather than joy, we may find ourselves struggling with grief over loved ones we’re missing and depression from the darkening days. Rather than peace, we may find ourselves enduring the stress of just trying to keep the family together and balance an insane number of parties and activities. Rather than love, we may find ourselves lashing out in anger at our loved ones. Rather than freedom, we may find ourselves wondering how we’re ever going to pay off the debt on our credit cards used to purchase our perfect Christmas.

If frantic shopping, decorating and parties are not the answer to experiencing the Christmas spirit, what is? The story of the first Christmas may provide us some interesting insights. We read in Matthew 1:18-19 of stressed relationships and accusations of infidelity — in fact the Holy Family was already planning a quiet divorce before Christmas Day. We read in Luke 2:6-7 of Baby Jesus spending the first Christmas not in the warmth and togetherness of family and friends, but cast out among the farm animals, rats and flies in the cold barn. We read in Matthew 2:13 that the baby Savior had to spend his earliest years as a refugee in Africa to escape the terrorist leader Herod.

Throughout the story of the first Christmas, we find stress, hardship and doubt. And yet we also hear in this story announcements and promises of great joy and hope, peace and salvation, as when the angel announced to the homeless shepherds in Luke 2:10-11, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

I wonder if God is telling us through the story of the first Christmas that it’s not in spite of the stress, hardship and doubt, it is through these things that we can experience the peace, joy, hope and love we so desperately seek? As God’s son, Jesus could have avoided all difficulties, escaped suffering and lived a life of luxury. Instead, Jesus submitted to being placed in a dirty wooden feeding trough in his first hours of life, and submitted to being nailed on an old, rugged wooden cross in his final hours of life. Why? To demonstrate sacrificial love for all of us so that through a relationship with him we might find true life, inner joy, authentic hope and lasting peace.

Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s time for us to lay down the heavy and burdensome aspects of Christmas by the side of the wooden manger, at the foot of the wooden cross. And it’s time to take up only that which Jesus gives us, which is the invitation to receive his love and to offer his love to others. This is the true spirit of Christmas.

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The Rev. Gwyneth Arrison is serving as pastor of the Merrimacport United Methodist Church of Merrimac, www.MerrimacportUMC.org.