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“Words and Sayings of the Season: Merry Christmas—or Xmas?”
Luke 3:15


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Advent Service I—December 5, 2012

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

During Advent this year our sermon series is “Words and Sayings of the Season,” explaining the Biblical background and meaning of words and sayings that we commonly hear and say ourselves this time of year.  This evening we consider the most familiar and widely used saying of the season: “Merry Christmas!”

The first half of the word “Christmas” really tells us what—and who—this season is all about.  As this evening’s reading says, “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.”

“Christ” really was not Jesus’ last name, as we would tend to assume.  Last names are actually a fairly recent invention, and they simply didn’t have last name in Bible times.  Instead, people were often identified by where they came from or their father’s name.  That’s why in the Gospels Jesus is called both “Jesus of Nazareth,” after his hometown, and “Son of Joseph,” after his adoptive father.

Children often think that “Pastor” must be my first name, and they’re sometimes surprised to learn that I do have a first name, Kevin.  Rather than being his last name, “Christ” is likewise a title given to Jesus, signifying the office that he held.  “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” the title of the long-awaited, promised Savior.  That’s why, just as I am called “Pastor Vogts,” Jesus was called “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ,” because he is the long-awaited, promised Savior.

“The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.”  John the Baptist was such a powerful prophet that the people thought the ancient promises of the coming Christ might have been fulfilled in him.  But, the other Gospels report John the Baptist answered them, “I am not the Christ. . .  but after me will come one who is more powerful than I.” And Paul says in the book of Acts, “As John was finishing his work, he said, ‘Who do you think I am?  No, I am not he, but he is coming after me.”

John the Baptist himself was not the promised Christ, but instead he was the forerunner of the Messiah, announcing the Good News the Savior’s imminent coming into the world, as Isaiah prophesied, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!’” 

“The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.” That’s the meaning of the first half of the word “Christmas”: Christ, the title of Jesus, designating him the Messiah, the long-awaited, promised Savior of the world.

“Christmas” would be better pronounced “Christ-mass.”  Because, the second half of the word “Christmas” is the traditional term for a Christian worship service, still used by Lutherans in many parts of the world, a “mass” of Christian worship, shortened by one “s” in the word “Christmas.”  So, “Christ-mass” literally means a “mass,” or worship service, celebrating Christ, in particular celebrating the birth of Christ.

All around the world there are many different ways, in different languages, to greet people at Christmas.  In German it’s “Froehliche Weihnachten,” which literally means “Happy Holy Night.”  In Norwegian it’s “God Jul,” which means “Good Yule.”  In Spanish it’s “Feliz Navidad,” which means “Happy Nativity.”  In French it’s “Joyeux Noel,” which means, “Joyous Noel.”   You may have a recording of Bing Crosby singing “Merry Christmas” transliterated into Hawaiian as “Mele Kalikimaka.”

Because of the worldwide influence of our American media, the most common Christmas greeting around the world today has become our own familiar “Merry Christmas.” This phrase originated in England during the Middle Ages, and the first written example of “Merry Christmas” is from the 1500’s.  To us the word “merry” means “jovial” or “jolly,” like the American Santa Claus.  It is true we are jovial and jolly at Christmastime, but originally “Merry Christmas” had a much deeper meaning.  Because, in old English the word “merry” means “peaceful.”  Doesn’t that sound beautiful, wishing people a “Peaceful Christmas”?  Really, this old greeting is an echo of the announcement the angels made to the shepherds on the first Christmas Eve: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

So, when you wish someone a “Merry Christmas,” it’s really a shorthand way saying to them, “God’s Peace Be with You Because of Christ’s Birth.”  And that’s what the message of Christmas is really all about.  In Ephesians, Paul describes our sin as “the dividing wall of hostility,” an impassible spiritual barrier, separating you from God and eternal life in heaven, and damming you to eternal torment in the fires of hell. As John the Baptist sternly warns in this evening’s reading, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”  That’s why the world needed a Messiah, to save us from our sins.

Paul continues in Ephesians with the Good News: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has . . . destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . .  he came and preached peace to you who were far away.”  When you wish someone a “Merry Christmas,” it’s really a shorthand way saying, “God’s Peace Be with You Because of Christ’s Birth.”  The old English carol we’re singing tonight puts it very beautifully: “God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray . . .  O tidings of comfort and joy!”

People often wonder about the substitution of “Xmas” for “Christmas.”  Actually, that’s another old bit of Christian shorthand.  On the cover of this evening’s bulletin is the traditional monogram “Chi Rho,” which is composed of the first two letters of Jesus’ title in Greek, “Christus,” “Christ.”  What looks like an English “P” in the monogram is really a Greek “rho,” and what looks like an English “X” is really a Greek “chi.”  Because of the difficulty and expense of writing everything out by hand, in ancient times it was common to use such abbreviations.  So, the “X” in “Xmas” isn’t really an English “X” at all, but the Greek letter “chi,” and “Xmas” is actually an ancient Christian abbreviation for “Christmas.”  Some people these days might use “Xmas” instead of Christmas because they think it avoids referring to Christ, but, the irony is, whether they realize it or not, “Xmas” still is “Christmas.”

You may have seen bumper stickers and lapel buttons that say something like, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  It is frustrating that there seems to be a strange discrimination against this major Christian holiday.  It’s especially frustrating because no other religion, or their holidays, seems to be treated that way.  However, I once met a man who was all fired up about this discrimination against Christmas, and rightly so.  But, as our conversation progressed, it turned out he didn’t really keep Christmas himself.  Because, he wasn’t a member of a Christian church, and he wasn’t interested in my invitation to visit our church and celebrate the real “reason for the season.”

As Christian citizens, we should lobby for our faith and our holidays to be treated fairly and with proper respect.  But, the best way to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is for Christians like you to do exactly what you’re doing here tonight.  “Oh, come, all ye faithful . . . Oh, come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!”

Amen.

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