The Joy of Christmas
“and the offerings will be acceptable, as the days of old” Malachi 3:4
Malachi was a prophet living during the 5th century B.C.E., after the Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. Malachi’s contemporaries were not giving God reverence, leaving God out of their everyday lives. Malachi foretells that trying times are coming and people will turn back to God, to religious lives, just as “the days of old’’.
“Why aren’t more people in church?” is the concern of many churches today. It is only matched by the comments of regular attendees arriving late on Christmas Eve. They lament, “Someone’s sitting in my pew! Why does everyone show up at Christmas?”
What a wonderful question! Why is it — or what is it — that calls people to Christmas Eve? Why is it people crave rituals that remind them of ‘the way things should be’, like “the days of old’’?
Recently, I asked someone why I only saw him on Christmas Eve. His wife jokingly responded, “He only comes for the flowers, those ‘red-stars’”. She was referring to our sanctuary being adorned with Poinsettias.
Poinsettias come from Mexico, named for our first Diplomat to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett. Poinsett introduced the plants to the United States in 1825, by sending them to the Smithsonian Institute for study. Because Poinsett was only interested in their botany, he did not pass their story (or legend) along.
Mexico has always used the Poinsettia to celebrate Christmas because its bloom comes to its brightest red on Christmas Day, and then begin to fade. The legend says two poor children heard people were bringing Advent Gifts to the Cathedral for the “Christ Child”. Having no money and nothing to offer, they went into the Tropical Forest and picked deep green plants to decorate the manger scene.
The Cathedral was in darkness all night, with only dim candlelight. During the day, every candle stand burned brightly, as the Cathedral was filled with lantern-bearing pilgrims bringing their gifts for the manger. Over Advent, people brought gold, fine fabrics, incense, and lavish foods. When the children returned with more “weeds” (as people called them), they were embarrassed at their humble gift in comparison to richer offerings.
As people were beginning to fill the streets on Christmas Eve, as the priest began to dress in the Sacristy, the “Spirit of the Christ Child” came into the Cathedral. Seeing all the gifts before the altar, the Christ Child was most touched by the children’s gift. Seeing the green leaves as a labor of love, the Christ Child reached out and touched them.
As people filed into the Cathedral that night, they were astonished. Some of the leaves (called ‘bracts’’) had turned flame-red! It was the most beautifully arrayed manger they had ever seen. “Who gave these beautiful flowers?” they asked.
Another good question! Who gave the Poinsettias? What caused them to burst flame-red? Was it the joy and generosity of children? Was it because the Cathedral was in darkness for 12 hours and bright light for 12 hours…(scientists tell us this is necessary for the bracts to change colors)? Was it because the Christ Child came into the lives of the community that evening?
Many seek happiness at holiday times. Happiness is something we pursue and can achieve. Joy is different. Joy steals up, unexpectedly, unbidden. While Happiness can satisfy, Joy thrills and surprises us. A young child running with a star in a pageant can fill our hearts with joy unexpected! People surprised by Joy, even for a rare moment, leave not hungering for more, but grateful for what they receive. The greatest joys are experienced in community.
Perhaps this is why people pour into the sanctuary on Christmas Eve. Yes, they want to sing the familiar carols, like “the days of old’’. They wish to participate in rituals that bring affirmation and happiness. Some come to bow their heads in prayer and wait on the Christ Child. They know that this child can transform weeds into glory. Yes, people come to see red -stars!
Wishing you a Joyous Christmas!