Christmas Cards: the images

given on Sunday, December 6, 2009

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One week into Advent and Christmas Day is getting closer.  I have to be honest, the Christmas cards are still on my “to do” list.  The task is not getting any smaller, and the mailbox is still waiting.  I always think the four weeks of Advent would be enough time to get my holiday chores done with plenty of time for family and friends, too.  I started thinking about Christmas cards this summer and even purchased them.  I still like the ones I selected, but now I am rethinking what my cards really say.

When I first began thinking about how Christmas cards relate to our celebration of Christmas, I began with the simple idea that we send out our messages through warm, loving messages.  Our Christmas cards are messages much like the prophets’ words in the Old Testament.  Even today’s scripture is one more example of how Malachi, another prophet.  The images are not the same that we use in our contemporary Christmas cards, but to the people of Jerusalem, the images in these few verses were very concrete and served as a metaphor for how the coming Messiah would purify them.

2 “ … For He is like a refiner’s fire

And like launderers’ soap.

3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;

He will purify the sons of Levi,

And purge them as gold and silver,

That they may offer to the LORD …”

The images of pure silver and pure gold appeal to the senses of the Israelites.  For others the idea of washing the clothes with soap also is a concrete image for them to understand how the Messiah will purify their soles.

Last week we talked about the reason we have a Christmas season.  I asked that we consider what our cards truly say about the reason for the season.  We may be confident that we know Christmas truly is about the birth of Jesus and the New Covenant, but I am afraid that others may not see what we see.

Think about all the images familiar to us during the holidays.  We see the obvious—Santa Claus, the Christmas trees, the lights, the packages, the candy canes, and even just the colors of red and green.  The images are swirling around us and wrapping us up in the shopping, the events, the festivities, and the traditions.  The question though remains:  Do the images we present during the Advent season truly reflect the importance of Jesus’ birth?  Do the images explain how Jesus purifies our lives?

Look at the pictures of your Christmas cards.  What images do they present?  Is there a hidden message?  Is there a message about Christ?  Would those images tell others how Jesus can purify their lives if only they accept the gift of grace from God?

As I spread out the cards I have purchased this year and last year, I am startled to see some patterns:  snowmen, snow, birds, pets, farm scenes, and nature scenes far outnumber the ones which are clearly connected to the New Testament story we refer to as the Christmas story.  In fact out of the three on the bulletin, only one refers to the Baby Jesus; and of the others spread around me, only two of the nine different cards are clearly telling the reason for the season, the birth of Christ.

The simple, happy, warm images I have selected to share my Christmas wishes hardly mention anything about my own faith.  The images are all familiar to our society as images of Christmas, but few really relate to the true meaning of Christmas.

Look around you today.  What do you see?  The images are everywhere whether during the daylight or during the night.  The images are speaking out loud and clear, but what do they say to all who see them?  I suppose we could analyze them in many respects in an effort to bring meaning to them, but should we?

Turning to the web, I decided to google some of the words that could be connected to images of Christmas.  I found that the images certainly do match the 89cards; the next step was to see why we now connect them to Christmas.  Another google search and I located a website, “Apples for the Teacher,” which listed almost two pages of Christmas symbols with their meanings.  The list is lengthy, but each item has an explanation:

  • Advent wreath:  four candles placed in a circle of evergreen.
  • Angel:  the messengers who told the shepherds of the birth of Jesus
  • Bells:  church bells are rung to announce the birth of Christ
  • Candles:  represent the light Jesus brought to earth
  • Christmas tree lights:  also represent the light of Jesus replacing the candles
  • Creche`:  the manger in which the baby Jesus slept upon his birth
  • Evergreen tree:  originally part of pagan tradition celebrating the winter solistice representing the end of winter; converted pagans kept the tradition
  • Gifts:  stand for the gifts the Wisemen brought to Baby Jesus
  • Holly:  another tradition carried over from the converted pagans who believed the green holly was a promise the sun would return; early French and English families hung holly over their doors to symbolize a home which celebrated Christ’s birth
  • Reindeer & Santa Claus:  St. Nicholas, a real person/bishop who was declared a saint, chose the reindeer to pull his sleigh as he gave presents to the children and needy people
  • Star:  the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Wisemen to Baby Jesus
  • Gold:  a precious metal associated with the power of kings
  • Frankincense:  a resin from a rare and sacred tree used to make incense
  • Myrrh:  a resin from a shrub used to make perfume

Interestingly enough, among all these symbols of Christmas, there are no snowmen, no sleds, no cardinals, no farms, no little white churches found among the fields of snow, no ice skaters, no puppies, kittens or penguins.  All these are other images I find in the cards scattered around me.  My symbols are not primarily the Christian images which could be sending out the message that Jesus was born a man to bring God’s message of loving one another really are sending out the warm fuzzy type of greeting associated more with the meteorological season of winter here in our community than anything.

What should I do?  Do I trash all my cards and find new ones?  Maybe the images on my cards do send a message.  Maybe, in a not-so-direct manner, my cards show the receiver that I am happy and that even in the midst of winter it is the small joys in life that enriches my life.  My values are reflected in the images, just not the value of my faith.

If I review the images based on the cards, I find hidden messages.  For instance, in each card is the evergreen tree.  Not one card is missing some form of evergreen, holly, and even mistletoe.   The winter months can be beautiful, but the hope of life eternal is there in the evergreens that surround us.

Another image in the cards are the nature elements.  Almost every one of them includes birds—cardinals, chickadees, geese, and even penguins.  Oddly not one dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  Maybe the Holy Spirit is represented by all birds, whether they can fly or not, i.e. the penguins.

The images in our cards may speak louder than the words.  We, as Christians, find joy in so many places.  Joy comes in the Aurora Borealis, which swirls around the stars to the north.  Joy comes from kids running and playing in the snow and building snowmen.  Joy comes from the warmth of a fire in the fireplace where we curl up with our kittens and puppies.  Joy comes from skating on a frozen pond with friends.  The images in many Christmas cards show joy, the joy we find in our hearts because we believe in Jesus Christ.

The Christmas cards, which is a custom that began with Sir Henry Cole sending out 1,000 special designed cards he had printed in 1843, (according to the “Apples for the Teacher” website) do speak for us.  The images say so much about us, but we can do more.  As you sign those cards, address and stamp the envelopes, seal them with a prayer.  If you write an annual letter, share what a difference God has made in your life—what blessings can you share.  As you place the cards in the mailbox, close the box with a prayer of thanksgiving for all the friends and family you have in your life.  Let the prayer ask for God to take care of them, even ask God to protect the mail carriers which handle the cards along their journey.

The Old Testament prophets had only their voices to send out the message of Jesus’ birth.  We have so many ways to share the good news.  Take the images we share through the mail, and live them.  Make sure that your life, the images you present face to face with others, mirrors your belief in the reason for the season.  Do not let the hustle and bustle of the holiday wreck the image of Christ in your life.  You know the good news of Jesus’ birth in the manger; show it.

Dear Heavenly Father,

We are ending our worship together today, but we know that the images we share in this sacred space can be shared outside those doors.  Help us to share the message of Christ’s birth in the images we present not only in our cards, but in our lives.  Thank you for the gift of your son because it truly brings joy into our lives.  –Amen

Consider the images in Luke 1: 26-38

26-28In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!

You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,

Beautiful inside and out!

God be with you.

29-33She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,

be called ‘Son of the Highest.’

The Lord God will give him

the throne of his father David;

He will rule Jacob’s house forever—

no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

34Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

35The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,

the power of the Highest hover over you;

Therefore, the child you bring to birth

will be called Holy, Son of God.

36-38“And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:

I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.

Let it be with me

just as you say.

Then the angel left her.               —The Message

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