Jesus’ Birthday (Christmas Eve, 2023)

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Every year at Christmas, we explain to small children that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.  It’s sweet, it’s true and it’s easy for small children to understand.  More than that, it also transports many of us adults back to the time when we were children celebrating birthdays. 

Birthdays as children, whether our own, or for our friends, were always wonderful events.  We gathered with our friends for a party.  We ate special foods like birthday cakes, ice cream, and in my case – I always remember there were M&Ms!  We always sang the special “happy birthday” song, whether we were any good at singing or not!  And we all had a great time!

But as we got older, we experienced birthdays in different ways.  As we got into middle school and high school, we needed to memorize birthdates of important people, because they were important figures in history.  And of course, remembering birthdays could sometimes be stressful, because you had to remember them to pass the test!

Yet some of those birthdays were easy to remember because they were also federal holidays.  And so as we got to be adults, birthdays again became important because they meant we got a day off from work or school!  Birthdays, even of people who lived long ago and whom we never met, became occasions to take a long weekend trip, have a barbque, or patronize the ubiquitous mattress sales that seem to be the way secular society celebrates important birthdays!

So what does it really mean when we tell our kids or our grandkids that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday?  Indeed, birthdays can mean many things to many different people.  Even in our secular world, even folks who aren’t Christian are happy to celebrate “Jesus’ birthday” because like many other “birthdays” we celebrate:

  • It’s great to have a party!  Like those birthday parties of our childhood, this season is drenched in decorations, special foods and wonderful music.  I have many friends, and I’m sure you do, too, who are not Christian, but still love the Christmas parties, put up a Christmas tree and look forward to the special foods of the season.  I do, too!  And indeed, if you came to church tonight and didn’t see the decorations, the candles and the Christmas tree, it would be kind of disappointing.  These are all great things to help us celebrate…
  • You get a few days off!  Even Pastors eventually get a little slack around Christmas, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying days off.  Even folks who aren’t celebrating a religious holiday enjoy time off because of somebody else’s religious celebration.  I learned this years ago when I first came to Prince of Peace.  We always had a huge Confirmation Retreat in the fall, but whenever we wanted to do that, the families would always complain that the kids were too busy with homework and sports.  But not on the Jewish High Holidays!  Those days were school holidays, and no homework was allowed to be assigned (at least back then.)  And we loved that, because THAT was the time we could have our Confirmation retreat!  Time off for somebody else’s religious celebration is GREAT…! 
  • Celebrating a “birthday” can simply be acknowledging an historical event – like those folks we had to learn about in history class, Jesus is seen by many people as somebody who clearly had an effect on world history.  And even if they don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, or that Jesus was uniquely God in the flesh, it’s pretty clear that there was such a person, and he had to have been born.  And while folks who aren’t Christian may not believe the stories of angels singing in the fields, this is a time of year filled with stories of flying reindeer and talking snowmen, so it doesn’t seem that out of place…!

But here’s the thing about celebrating a birthday when we were little kids. Birthdays DID commemorate an historical event – somebody was born.  And birthdays DID stop the routine and give us a chance to go to a party.  And birthdays DID always involve special decorations and music and food (or at least, they should have!)

But those things weren’t what the birthday – or even the birthday party – was really about.  The birthday party was about celebrating the person who had come into our lives and become our friend.  The birthday party was about knowing that that person would still be our friend when the party was over.  And the birthday party was a time to gather together with other friends, who would often become our friends as well.

And this is what Jesus’ birthday party is about for us each year.  Christmas is not so much about celebrating the fact that Jesus was born long ago, as it is about celebrating the fact that Jesus is still a living reality in our lives today.  Christmas is not so much about celebrating God’s love in sending Jesus to ancient people as it about celebrating the relationship of love, forgiveness and strength that Jesus continues to bless us with each day.  And Christmas is not just about celebrating the person of Jesus, but also about celebrating being part of the community of friends that Jesus has called each one of us to be a part of.

Sometimes, when we tell children that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, we may feel like it’s a simple and incomplete explanation.  But what’s really incomplete is that we often don’t unpack the real meaning of celebrating a “birthday” to ourselves.  As adults, we’ve often become jaded and allowed ourselves to be distracted by all the other ways we celebrate birthdays.

But maybe what we tell the children is the most profound explanation if we stop and consider its actual meaning.  We celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birthday because Jesus is alive and with us.  We celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birthday because Jesus continues to make a difference in our lives even after all the decorations are gone.  And we celebrate Christmas as Jesus’ birthday because, even after Christmas is over, Jesus has called us to be participants in a party which has no end.