Some traditions are special. For example — it is customary, when Jewish families celebrate Passover — for the youngest child to ask “Why is this night different from all others?” In the answer, children are taught why the family cherishes their Passover celebration.
We could learn from this. Why not improve our skill at explaining why Christmas is worth celebrating, rather than warring with those who disagree?
To start the process off, I’ll share a true story. It’s Chuck’s life story — he was laid to rest last spring — and it’s the kind of Christmas story that might underscore our meaning.
Chuck would never have claimed he was a good man — he wasn’t. In his lifetime he did some horrible things, and was called ruthless, even by his friends. No surprise: this eventually lead to his arrest. While awaiting trial, someone gave Chuck “Mere Christianity”, a book by which he claimed to be deeply affected.
Predictably, his critics (he had many) mocked him, and doubted his faith. Chuck served his time, and carried on. In most people’s cases, that would be the story’s end, their names would be swallowed by oblivion. But Chuck was emphatically not “most cases”.
What the world had not yet discovered, is that when Chuck said he became a Christian, he really, really meant it. As proof, the rest of his life went in a completely new direction.
Having served time himself, he developed a special care and concern for prisoners — something often overlooked by Christian groups and agencies. Seeing a need, Chuck organized a prison fellowship. He also launched programs for children whose parents were imprisoned. Before long, his name had become synonymous with Prison Outreach.
He also took seriously Christ’s commandment of teaching Christian faith and practice. So he established a training center. The royalties from his autobiography, and funds from his Templeton prize (the cash value exceeds that of the Nobel Prize) were donated to the prison fellowship. Whatever you might say about his motives, he wasn’t in this for financial gain. While receiving the Templeton award, he said the following —
Christian conviction inspires public virtue, the moral impulse to do good. It has sent legions into battle against disease, oppression, and bigotry. It ended the slave trade, built hospitals and orphanages, tamed the brutality of mental wards and prisons. In every age it has given divine mercy a human face in the lives of those who follow Christ — from Francis of Assisi to the great social reformers Wilberforce and Shaftesbury to Mother Teresa to the tens of thousands of Prison Fellowship volunteers who take hope to the captives — and who are the true recipients of this award.
Chuck, of course, is Chuck Colson, of Watergate infamy. He had once been Nixon’s “hatchet man”. All the unseemly things we associate with bare-knuckled backroom politics were his stock-and-trade. And then, one day, it wasn’t. By the end of his life, even those who bitterly disagreed with his politics and religious convictions could still respect the work he did, and the manner in which he did it. Why?
It comes back to Christmas. It is because of the birth we celebrate, the First Advent of Jesus Christ. When Jesus’ birth was announced, it was proclaimed (paraphrasing): news of great joy, for all people. Jesus is born. Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, Peace, good will toward men.
As much as we enjoy gifts, family, feasting, carols and decoration, as much as we enjoy the things we associate with the Christmas season, none of these, alone, can transform a life. But Chucks’ life was transformed by the One whose birth we celebrate. It wasn’t just Chuck’s life, either. In example after example, across the world, and down through the centuries, people have completely changed their lives due to the influence of Jesus of Nazareth.
Regarding peace on Earth, good will toward men: the peace on Earth obviously isn’t an end to disagreement, we still have plenty of those. It is peace of another sort. The internal peace and contentment we spend so much energy seeking in other ways. It’s the peace that comes when real guilt for real wrongdoing is set aside, and done away with. Forever. The peace that comes from being accepted by the One whose acceptance we truly need. And the good will of God toward those who accept the peace He offers.
Ultimately, Christmas only makes real sense in the light of Easter and Christ’s work on the cross. Of his meeting us on our level, in our weakness and inability to put things right with God on our own. Of Christ’s willingness to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, enduring for us a penalty that would have destroyed us.
The original significance of Christmas is the love that led God to humble himself to live a mortal peasant’s life, to bear our burdens for us, and to draw us back to God. This is the love God had for us. This is the news of Great Joy to those of us who embrace it. This was also the impetus that made Chuck Colson (Nixon’s hatchet man) become Chuck Colson the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. This joy motivated his later life’s work.
May God bless you with that same peace and joy. Have a Merry Christmas!