I have complicated feelings about Christmas.
As a child, I loved it, of course. On Christmas Eve, my grandmother came over to our house for a big meal and a first round of presents. On Christmas morning, my brother and I could count on an excellent haul from Santa Claus. Then we’d all have a big breakfast before heading over to my other grandparents’ house for another round of food and presents. It was about as good as life could get for a kid.
But by my mid-twenties, I had become an early-onset old curmudgeon. My poor wife loved Christmas, and she was, and is!, good at it. But the festivities around Christmas weren’t as fun for me as they used to be. I began to worry that Christmas celebrations were excessive, that they distracted people from the real reason for the season. At least, that was my justification for behaving like Scrooge every Christmas.
When we had young children, I swung back around. I suspect that our children were more focused on gifts and sweets than on Jesus. And the work of Christmas went up dramatically, for Carrie more than for me, but for me too. But Christmas with small children in the house was big fun.
Now that my formerly small and adorable children are young adults who routinely pick me up and move me out of the way when I irritate them, the pendulum is swinging back, and the old curmudgeon in me has been rising to the surface once again.
So, with a little encouragement from Carrie, I have been trying to re-discover the spirit of Christmas this year. And where do we see the Christmas spirit in its most concentrated form? In my life, as I suspect is true for most of us, it has been in children.
Having raised two of my own, I do not think of children as little angels. But children have their angelic moments. And in those moments, they give us a glimpse of what Christmas means.
For children in my experience, Christmas is significantly about receiving gifts and other tokens of love. I am coming to see that that’s not a bad way for all of us to think about our lives with God. We are constantly receiving blessings and love from God, even though we don’t always deserve it and are not always great about being thankful for it. So one lesson we can learn from children at Christmastime is to be more enthusiastic gift receivers.
But we can go deeper than that. In their own way, children are givers too.
In a collection of sermons preached at my cousin’s Church in North Carolina, a priest named Lisa Saunders tells the story of bringing her mother to visit her mother’s first great grandchild. Saunders’ mother was suffering from a bad form of dementia and was in misery. That day, she wouldn’t speak during the hour and a half car ride. She just wept the whole way.
But when they arrived, when her mother was holding her great grandchild on her lap, everything about her changed. She perked up. Her mind cleared. She smiled. She chatted. Saunders said that she “bloomed.”
The very real challenges in her life did not go away, of course. But for a moment in her encounter with her great grandchild, Saunders’ mother was reborn. She loved, and she felt loved. In some mysterious way, the encounter with her great grandchild put Saunders’ mother back in touch with “the source of all being who never stops surprising us with new life and love.”
My experience of Christmas with my young children was not as dramatic as that. But I experienced something loosely similar. When our children were small and I was a recovering Scrooge, Carrie and I worked hard to make their Christmases fabulous. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the much greater gift my children were giving me. But looking back, I see that their joy made my Christmases fun, too. Their joy helped to connect me back with the source of all being, more or less like what Saunders describes.
These days we don’t have any little ones in my immediate family. If one of my sons sits on my lap tomorrow, he will crush me. But tonight we here are all of us touched by a child in a way even more powerful than what Saunders described. We are here tonight to celebrate the good news of great joy that God comes to all of us in the Christ child.
On that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago, shepherds showed up at the manger, and they saw a baby, and they saw God. That is an amazing thing. God loved us enough to come among us as a helpless child.
And it continues to be true today. We continue to meet God in children, particularly at Christmastime. Children can bring us into deeper contact with the God whose birth we celebrate tonight.
And it is not limited to the children in our families. In this season, even those of us like me who do not have easy and immediate access to small children are constantly reminded of their presence and their easy joy, and so we are all constantly invited to reflect on the holy mystery of the Christ child and of the grace of God that stands behind every experience of grace that we have.
But we need to go one step deeper still. Christmas is not only about the gifts we receive, from children and ultimately from God. Christmas is also about the gifts we give to each other.
I don’t mean the stuff.
Christ was born among us so that we too might be reborn by water and the Spirit. Christ invites us to new life in him. And Christ uses quite striking language. Jesus told his disciples, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
A lot is in that apparently simple line. Here is just one thing. Children can serve as living reminders of the Christ child, of God’s incredible grace and love towards us. Our task in this Christmas season is to open ourselves up to God so completely that we adults can do the same, so that people can glimpse in us the love of God that we have received. We are invited to become like children, to become the kind of people in whom God’s grace and love is made visible, the kind of people who are connected enough to God that we can help to reconnect others.
Christmas is all about receiving and giving. Especially Christmas is about receiving and giving the most precious gift of all, the gift of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
And so on this most holy night, I give thanks to God for the Christ child. I give thanks to God for anything in this season that points us to Him. And I pray that we may all become like little children. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Lisa Saunders, Even at the Grave, 2017, 107.