Reading, Matthew, chapter 2
Hyms, 107, 114, 121
Text, "We saw his star in the East". Matthew 2.2
The practical uselessness of much that centers around Christmas festivities in our day has often been noted by us all. It is felt by many who have no intention of criticism, quite as well as by those who have the spirit of Mr. Dicken's "Mr. Scrouge" in their hearts. Perhaps this is necessarily attendant upon so wide an observance of the anniversary as has come to pass in our time. Maybe there is a meaning in even the apparently superfluous that we all have noted either to commend or criticize.
It is our purpose, this morning, to call attention to some of these useless superfluities, so to speak, and to ask their meaning, if they indeed have any. It will be necessary, first of all, to note what these superfluities are. Then we shall be in a better position to ask their meaning.
What useless things do center about Christmas?
Christmas is the hour of dreams. It is so for little children. For many nights, little heads have been filled with visions such as never come on any other nights of the year. Such dreams they are, too! They are not a baseless fabric, like most dreams! They are real and clothed in flesh and blood. Santa Claus is seen descending down little chimneys, in quite impossible positions. Dear old Santa! He comes with great bundles in his hands and on his back. He is seen in the dreams putting long sought for presents in the Christmas stocking or on the Christmas tree. The tingle of his merry sleigh bell is heard long after he is gone. His reindeer are as literal, and as clearly seen as the good plain horses on the city streets. Some wonder fills the dream indeed, for could it well be a dream if there is not to be any wonder in it, that Santa can travel so far in one night--but then, what is Santa good for if he can't do that, since he does not come but once a year? This is really not a dream either, for when the morning comes and nothing is left but the dream and the little folks hurry down in their night clothes, is there not strewed around the very things we dreamed that Santa left? Of course this is a Santa Claus. There is the proof of it.
But Christmas dreaming is not by a great deal confined to the little folks. Christmas is the hour for dreams of older people as well--for gray hairs as well as children. What day dreams have been indulged this last week in Rochester. One may see the trace of it on the faces of the congregation this morning. Because we know so many of our dreams can never come true.
The boy has been dreaming. His parents have been unusually good to him. He dreams that he is to repay them. A farm that Father talked about, a house that Mother did so wish to own, an automobile that sister wanted for her own to ride in,-the boy dreamed that he was rich and grown up and had bought them each their gift.
A man of family dreamed. He had bought a better home, his income was more and he had released his wife from much of her drudgery, he was sending his children to schools he had hardly dared to dream they could ever attend, -and best of all he had paid off all the mortgage and settled a little annuity on his aged parents, putting them on easy street.
A Father dreamed, and he saw his children grown up and holding positions of trust and honor, because of some heroism he had done , an heroism he was not so well acquainted with in his waking hours, but which seemed very real in the Christmas dreamland.
A lover dreamed and behold both he and his love were transfigured by their love and there were to be no more misunderstandings or disputes, but only one long dream of love unalloyed.
One of the delights of the Christmas time is to stand on the crowded streets a few minutes and watch the faces of the shoppers at the many and beautiful windows. A boy and girl standing clasping hands before a window where they think they see, and I guess they do see, Santa Claus, a girl looking with laughing eyes at a window in which are set many glittering diamonds, a woman before the window of a department store filled with things which would help her in her work, and a man--before what windows will a man not stand all the time making fun of others for being so silly? I have even seen men standing before windows that had nothing but cigars and pipes--to think of that at Christmas time!
Enough has been said. I am sure to make it very clear that Christmas is an hour when many dreams that are good and many that are vain are indulged in. Afterward we shall return to ask what meaning there may be in dreaming such as this.
Christmas is the day of toys. We try to make it otherwise. We make solemn pledges in our family conclaves, that "next year", always "next" year that the presents shall be sensible. But the inevitable gets us each year. We laugh at the toys. We cal them silly and childish, but they will not go down. We get commercial and talk of how much they cost, and what a foolish expenditure of money they represent as if by this we at last had put an end to them. But they have a perennial life like the Wandering Jew, from whose same land they come. They will not be killed by family councils nor by economic reasoning. In spite of protests and pocket book, Christmas is the day of toys. Who ever could be so heartless as to think that Santa Claus was spending his whole time from one Christmas to the next making sensible presents. It is quite absurd. Santa would lose his jolly laugh if he were forced to work just like the rest of us hard working people,-indeed he would! He might try not to, but he would wither up and die. But he keeps laughing and jolly and fat, because he is the toy king. He is the one who can make things that are not much good, only to pay with, and laugh about. Santa's home is the home of toys. That is where they are made. It is really very sad that so much is said about their being made in Germany when everyone knows quite well that they are made in Santa's home.
To this we shall return again. Enough now to call attention to the indisputable fact that Christmas, despite all we can do, loads the counters of every store, of every home, of every person in it from the least to the oldest, from the happy to the skeptical, with toys; and loading them with toys, bids them laugh, and be glad for at least one day in all the long, long year.
The symbols that are associated with Christmas are quite as uncommercial and money-value-less as are the dreams, and the toys of this day. The great symbols of Christmas are three: holly, bells and stars. From time immemorial no one can remember a Christmas without holly, bells and stars. If we say them all to-gether we should know it was Christmas if we had lost all track of time. Let us look at them.
Christmas holly,- the green and red manifestation of the Christmas spirit in every home. Our stores of merchandise are bedecked with it. Out windows hold it as if to say to passers by here is another home where Christmas is being observed. Our people wore sprigs of it as if to say there is another heart that has not yet lost the Christmas spirit. It is everywhere, in the most unexpected places, nowadays.
But what does the holly represent? IT is not a valuable plant. If you ate it, it would make you sick, and if you ate too much it would poison you so that you might die. It is not fragrant. There is not an odor that makes it attractive. To be sure it has a dull sombre beauty of its own, but it is tame beside most plants and flowers. It needs assistance to be beautiful. So we tie it up with great knots of red ribbon, and call it pretty. You may have seen it grow as an hedge or in the woods as a tree. You know that it is even less attractive in its irregular scrawny natural growth than as we commonly see it twined in wreathes. It surely is a lowly plant, and not like the emblem of pride or vanity, unless perchance some wealthy man bedecks his whole front yard with it as if to say how easily he can afford it. Surely the holly is a fit symbol of the many useless things which gather about Christmas.
Christmas bells are glad, if we care to personify them, and make them ring out wildly as did the poet Tennyson. But their mission in the world is the marking of time, and place. They tell us of the hours of the day and night in our clocks in out homes and in the church steeples. They mark the danger spots of the great deep and the harbors of the country, tolling when the fog is on. They announce the Christmas time. But the melody save in monster chimes such as few of us hear but little, is in ourselves. Yet the bells are somehow closely connected with the Christmas time, since we have a feeling that the bells of heaven rang with joy when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea.
Christmas has always been connected with the silent far away stars ever since the first Christmas, when the wise men of the East said to Herod, "We saw his star in the east". These wise men must have been more or less visionary. They were watching the stars and not the earth. Now, so far as we know the stars have not much to do with this earth. They do not keep us warm as does the sun. They do not effect anything upon it, as does the moon with its tides. They are objects up there for men to look at and dream about. These wise men looked for signs and portents, however, and they saw a new strange star in the east. It was as they said "His star". They sought to know its meaning and it moved. They followed it, and on it moved again. They made ready for a journey and it took them to Jerusalem, to Herod to question and see if he knew where there was born a king in whose honor a new star had appeared. But the star stopped not in Jerusalem. It moved, and the wise men followed it out to the country again, and this time it led to Bethlehem of Judea, where they found the king, and worshipped Him. And ever since that wondrous day, when the Star of Bethlehem moved in its orbitless course and revealed the manger and the king, the star has been an emblem of that king and is associated more closely than any other symbol with his natal day. But as was said before, more than any other of the heavenly bodies it bears no relation to this planet and has no practical meaning for us. Its message, if it has one, is not to be found in the market place.
These are the symbols of Christmas,- the holly, the bells and the star. These are all symbols of unusual character, and we must look a second time if we discover their meaning. That however is our purpose in this hour.
Christmas dreams, Christmas toys, and Christmas symbols of the holly, the bells, and the star, these are some of the useless superfluities, as we have sometimes thought which gathered about the festival of Christ's birth and somewhat obscured its meaning. For the real meaning of his birth was that God had come to earth to live with men, in the person of Jesus. And what have dreams and toys and symbols to do with that? Do they not obscure it?
We shall need first of all to ask their meaning. And we shall the better be able to do this by ranging them alongside of other things of their class which are more persistent and last through the whole year. With these latter we are more familiar and their common meaning will perhaps clarify our thoughts about the Christmas stars.
There are four things I desire to mention which are closely akin to the facts of which we are thinking. They are poetry, ideals, remorse for one's past, and reverence for our dead. Let us note them and their evident bearing, and observe if they have any use in this mundane world.
Poetry has a place in the schools, and in a young man's thoughts when he is first turning to thoughts of love. Everyone has a time of writing a few verses. But what practical use is poetry? Whom does it at all help? It does not help the schoolboy in what is called his real work, by his teachers. For when one really reads Dante or Milton, how can he be expected to parse? He can not parse and get the spirit of it all. So poetry has no place in the office of a business man. If he reads it his customers go out while he is engaged; if his clerk reads it over the ledger he makes mistakes that are costly both for the firm and himself. The man engaged in charity finds that his actual cases are so tame and common beside that which the poet brings to him, that he does not like to discourage his work by too much of it. Surely the poet has not much place in the world to-day. We shall presently see.
Ideals are like poetry. They do not help much in this busy practical world. Ideals are fleeting. We never come up to them. We can never possess our ideal. It always moves on ahead of us, and is always just eluding our grasp. We can never overtake it, if we came to be as old as Methuselah, in our pursuit of it. Beside, the ideals change so quickly and unexpectedly. As boys are ideals were the grown up men we saw afar off and wondered at; but we are grown now and are disabused of any such ideals. As young men, it was some angelic face of loveliness, but we are grown now, and the loveliness is fleeing. As men of the world it was such a fortune, but the fortune has come to us, and we have not yet arrived. The ideal keeps us restless and dissatisfied, and never gives content. Why not let ideals go, then? What use can they be in this weary prosaic world?
Remorse for one's past is another mystery. What purpose does it serve? Would it not be better to et society by its frown crush out vices, and keep the proper standards? When the transgressions are great the law steps in at any rate and grasps the offender by the throat, and exacts a merciless penalty. When one has been ostracised by society, and punished by the state, it seems a cruel thing to have him suffer by a remorse of his own conscience far more than either of the others cause. It might seem that in such a turn, a man's own spirit aught be calm and unruffled. Surely at such an hour one aught not be tortured into loss of his self-control.
Far be it from me to disparage the great lines of belief that have come down as a heritage from the past. But we must not forget that men are saved not by their heads but by their hearts, and that above all intellect is the great beating, glowing heart of the world. I am glad that there is one season of the year when men get run away with by their hearts. I am glad there is a mood large enough to make men more generous than they aught to be perhaps. I am glad that the springs of life bubble up at Christmas time in such luxurious fashion that men do and dare for life and love's sake and not because they have reasoned it out.
And this is the real meaning of the star. For the wise men who stood for thinking things out, as we as might be under the ancient system, followed the star. They thought naturally enough that it would lead them to the king's court, and the scholar's desk. They went to those places in the great city, but the star did not tarry there. They must needs follow the star. It led them to a manger. A manger, indeed! And is a manger a place of high intelligence? Is the cow and the ox a type of clear unmuddled thinking? Quite the reverse. The manger was a place of one of the low intelligences. But it was a place of generous whole-souled ife. It was a place where feelings were not curbed. The manger became a throne of life. Christmas dreams, and toys, and symbols, poetry, ideals, remorse, and our dead, take on a new meaning when we look not with piercing eyes to discern the gain, but with tender eyes of love, to help assist and fulfill. Christmas, if it means anything, means that we are not governed in our great and dominant moods by a rational syllogism, but by the deep and hidden cisterns of life and love and feeling.
The Christmas mood has yet a second meaning upon which we must center our thoughts momentarily. It is that commercial standards are not the only test of life. In America we are very prone to test all moods by the commercial test. We ask how much it costs, and what it is worth, and if it is worth the price. Sometimes a sordid mind asks it about Christmas. But the query is drowned so quickly that one scarcely hears. Who could ever dare to ask if Christmas cost too much? Who dares to ask if the only meaning of Christmas is the moneys that are exchanged over the bargain counters? I am perfectly well aware that there is a Christmas trade. I know full well how many reap in a week for what they have done in a full year. But these are the exceptions. And beside, someone must work on Sunday if the rest of us are doing to ride on street cars and drink mik. No, the Christmas mood is not gauged by a commercial test. It is understood only under a religious mood. It is worth something in this country that we have a great religious festival that summons devotees from every household, and from nearly every heart, whose meaning is religious and not commercial. The oft-times called superfluities of Christmas, then, have a meaning indeed if in this country of dollars and cents, in this land where the question stares you in the face the livelong year--"Have you the price?"--that here is a mood which knows no price but only kindly love and charity--dreams, and toys, and bells and stars and holly which the humblest may have in abundance.
By a beautiful figure, Jesus is called the Star of Bethlehem. He is thought of as coming to this world to guide it, as the star came to guide the wise men to the manger. Jesus as the Star of Bethlehem is seen and known of all. This star is not the cynosure of a few choice eyes; it is seen and known of all. By wise and ignorant, by great and small, by rich and poor, by priests and laymen, by kings and shepherds is this Star seen. The Star of Bethlehem never fades out of the constellations. He is forever the day spring on high.
The perpetual question of a human life is what attitude to take to this star. Some position must be taken. Three courses were taken of old, any one of which is still largely chosen to-day.
One may persecute the Star, as did Herod, for sordid selfish reasons. Herod knew the king would dispace him. But how poorly he comprehended. Jesus never wanted Herod's throne. He only wanted Herod's heart. Had he received the king's heart, he would have made him a greater throne. But Herod saw it not, and sought to kill the young child. So may we.
One may conceal the Star from worldly motives, as did the priests. They knew all the prophesies about the coming child. But when Herod gathered them to-gether and asked where the king was to be born, all he could get was, "In Bethlehem of Judaea." They knew more; but they did not choose to divulge it. So may we keep our love and knowledge of the king hidden. We may fear what others will say; what changes it must needs make in our living; what confessions of things undone. So we as the priests say, "Yes we believe in the Star", but we might almost as much disbelieve in Him.
One may receive the Star with joy, as did the wise men, bringing gifts fit for a king. If so, he shall find the king; yea, better than that, he shall find himself, and his God, and his future.
May we all say with the wise men, "We saw his star in the east".