Driving from Texas to Michigan in December 1977 John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” seemed to be on all the radio stations. At that time in my twenty-year-old life Lennon’s melancholy lyrics particularly the line “so this is Christmas, and what have we have done, another year older, and a new one begun,” expressed my understanding of what Christmas was suppose to be. Christmas was a brief time of happiness in this otherwise blighted and benighted world in which we live. The trouble is there is not much happiness even at Christmas time. Lennon’s song, in my mind, reflects this. Christmas is the best we can do to approach happiness in this war-torn world, so make the most of this holiday. And people really try, don’t they? They try to be so happy at this time of year. A holly jolly holiday is a must. But should it be the church’s goal to wish “Happy Holidays” like everyone from Audi to ZigenBock does at this time of year? When I read the Gospels I find Jesus repeatedly dashing the disciples “happy” thoughts. Consider these examples:
Matthew 16: Peter, by the grace of the heavenly Father, correctly confesses who Jesus is. Jesus pronounces him blessed. What a time of joy, of celebration! But Jesus charges them to tell no one this great truth. And “from that time on Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer many things.”
Luke 10: The seventy return “with joy” from their missionary journey saying, “Lord, even the devils are subject to us in Your name.” How thrilled they must have been! Jesus responds, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” Oh that.
Luke 9: A man is moved to dedicate his life right on the spot to Jesus. He is happy; he is emoting, “I will follow You wherever You go.” But no happy assimilation committee for this man. Jesus says, I’m paraphrasing, “Hold on there partner. Before you get too carried away with this following stuff take note: this isn’t a bed of roses.”
Mark 13: The disciples are showing off the beautiful, amazing Temple. Now here is something that even God can be proud of! Surely Jesus should spring off these happy thoughts. Sorry He doesn’t. Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
Matthew 26: If ever there was a time that you could wish Jesus would just be a little happy, a little positive, a little upbeat, it’s Maundy Thursday. But, there He goes again, right in the middle of the Passover. “Truly I say to you one of you will betray Me!” Aw Jesus couldn’t you lighten up, just for tonight! But no, once that “downer” is done with and even put in the background somewhat by the singing of a hymn, what does Mr. Happy say, “You will all fall away because of Me this night.”
I don’t think Jesus would be very big on having a happy Christmas, but He would be all for a Merry Christmas. Modern English regards Merry Christmas as the equivalent of Happy Christmas. It is not. The expression Merry Christmas means blessed Christmas in the same way that the expression Merry old England means blessed England not happy England. Jesus gives Merry Christmases. The Church does too.
We’re not in the “business” of happy talk, good vibrations, groovy feelings, or giving people a holly jolly Christmas. Malls, restaurants, and television networks are in that business, and they do a pretty good job of it. But the Church is the only one who can actually give the Christ they are trying to be happy about. We alone can stand in His name and in His place forgive the sins that burden consciences so heavily this time of year. We alone have the water and the Word through which the Holy Child of Bethlehem descends to people casting out there sin, entering in, and re-borning them today. And we alone are able to place the Body and Blood of the Christ born at Bethlehem into the mouths of sinners today. By doing these things, I’m not sure how many people we make happy, but I do know we make very many blessed.
I’m reminded of another Christmas carol, Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It struggles with what Lennon’s does, the disparity between the peace on earth Christmas announces and the war that is here. (The sub-title of Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” is “War is Over.”) Longfellow writes, “And in despair I bowed my head;/ ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,/ ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth good will to men.” But unlike Lennon’s song which stays mired in self, in man, in feelings, Longfellow’s carol turns to God: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;/ The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good will to men.'”
Longfellow gets to where the “merriment” the blessedness of Christmas is, in what God has done and will do. One could wish he had pointed to God in Christ, but that is left to us whom the Christ has made stewards of His Mysteries. Merry Christmas