Here’s the problem with Christmas. Or rather, here’s the problem with preaching at Christmas: it’s all so doggone familiar.
Don’t get me wrong: the familiarity is a blessing. It’s part of what makes the holiday so special. From singing by heart the stanzas to “Joy to the World,” to swaying together by candlelight, to listening to Linus’s canonical speech as told by St. Luke: like with a well-worn cardigan, familiarity breeds contentment rather than contempt.
But this familiarity is also a curse for the preacher of the gospel at Christmas. Reason being, it means that your hearers can tune out the message just as easily as they can tune out during their daily commute. That might be a perk for drive time, but it’s a bug for worship.
Worse still, Christmas is undoubtedly one of the most opportune times to preach. We all know that there are probably more visitors for these services than any other, perhaps save Easter—pandemic or no. There are also those folks whom you only see a handful of times a year. It’s a tremendous opportunity to make known the good news of great joy, but this opportunity is squandered when the Word isn’t heard on account of the predictability of the proclamation. Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.
Ultimately, to be sure, the Holy Spirit is the one who opens deaf ears. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. So, I don’t mean to undermine our confidence in the divine work through the Word—however familiar that Word may be. In the immortal words of St. Paul, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Acknowledging our own jars-of-clay-ness, though, how can we as preachers polish the treasure of the Christmas gospel and blow off the dusty layers of familiarity, so that our hearers can more fully marvel at its beauty on this high holy day?
My recommendation: make it strange. Which is to say, make your people see again the strangeness of this Story that was always right there in front of them, but that has lost some of its bizarre luster through long use.
Make your people see again the strangeness of this Story that was always right there in front of them, but that has lost some of its bizarre luster through long use.
The fancy, five-dollar term for this is “defamiliarize.” Most commonly applied to art and literature, the concept means to present familiar things in an unfamiliar or strange way, so as to provide a new perspective. Think, for instance, of those movie trailers that are recut, effectively making them into different movies. Instead of Mary Poppins, the jovial nanny, it’s “Scary Mary,” the horror film. Instead of The Shining being its terrifying self, with a dose of Peter Gabriel and some tricky editing it becomes a rom-com.
As preachers, we don’t need to go to such outrageous lengths in order to defamiliarize the Christmas gospel. That strangeness is already right there, if we’ll have eyes to see it—and help our people to see it as well.
Consider, for instance, the first recipients of those glad tidings, the shepherds. From years of hearing this story, shepherds seem like the most natural initial audience for the good news—like tween girls at a Bieber concert. But these guys are nobodies, or worse; especially if, as is often assumed, they were nomadic shepherds. What kind of low-lifes does this Savior make Himself known to?
Or back it up to the Holy Family itself, and its purportedly Hallmark card-worthy birth. When the manger scene is made to look like a Thomas Kinkade picture, it can have a degree of plausibility to it. Yeah, who wouldn’t want to give birth in that cozy spot beside the calves, while the donkey preps the cocoa? But if Jim Gaffigan is right, and having a home birth even nowadays is like pitching all our obstetric progress and winging it, delivering the Son of God in a stable sans midwife hardly seems ideal. What kind of Lord enters the world amid the muck and mess of this world?
What kind of Lord enters the world amid the muck and mess of this world?
Or back up one step further still: you mean to tell me that the Almighty God of the universe is becoming a frail, fragile, puny human being?! By now it may feel as though that’s just a natural part of the divine job description, alongside smiting sinners and dividing waters, but such an audacious move was by no means an obvious occurrence from the Jewish perspective—not to mention the hoity-toity Greco-Roman world. What kind of God would suffer the indignity of humanity?
In all this, the goal is not to be novel. You don’t have to take another hit of creative juice. You really just need to wonder at the wonder of it all. And in doing so, another wonder will unfold. As you draw our attention to the utter strangeness of this Story, the Word made flesh will be the Word made fresh once again.