2017 Midweek Advent #1- Thanking Luther for Dec. 25th presents?
Just a quick show of hands how many of you have finished all your Christmas shopping? Me neither, but you can thank our old friend Martin Luther for having a couple more days of grace to get your gift list filled. You see if Luther hadn’t insisted on some changes way back in the reformation we all would have had to finish our shopping by yesterday Dec. 5th. Say What?! No Kidding, Dec. 5th used to be the drop-dead date for Christmas gifts.
If you grew up in Germany or several other very Roman Catholic areas of Europe you would know what I’m talking about. You see Dec. 5th is Saint Nicolas day and that was the day people exchanged gifts. Children would set out their shoes and if they were nice St. Nicolas would put presents in the shoes if they were naughty they would get coal in their shoes. I believe this is where we get the tradition of hanging the stockings with care. Any way after the shoes were “opened” the family went on to the other gifts under the tree- oh but that’s another Luther story- the tree that is. Tonight, I just want to focus on the presents.
You see during Luther’s time, God and Jesus had fallen into the background of Christianity. God was portrayed by the church as so omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent that mere human beings would burst into flames in his presence. Jesus was so hurt and upset by humanity’s failings that he was still suffering on that cross that he didn’t have the time or inclination to put up with one more persons sins piling on him. This posed a problem, basically who could a Christian turn to for comfort and aid in time of crisis?
The church had developed an answer: the saints. These folk heroes who, though mere mortals, had followed God’s rules so well they’d actually surpassed the bar God had raised for good behavior. The saints were lifted up as the ones to go to in prayer, they could “get you” better than God did because they’d been in your shoes at one point or another. So that’s how we got patron saints of coppersmiths, and patron saints of travelers, and so on and so forth. If you were a coppersmith who was traveling you actually had multiple saints you could call on actually upping the odds of getting prayers answered.
Luther with his reformation movement said this is all hog wash. Saints aren’t the focus of our faith! God is not merely a God of far off but a God of close at hand. Jesus did indeed suffer for our sake, but he also rejoices in one sinner who repents. While the church may mistakenly teach that God’s love trickles down to us through the Saints, scripture clearly teaches that the love of God is ours through Christ Jesus.
The old church’s emphasis on the saints had made Saint Nicolas Day, Dec. 5th the day to exchange gifts because he had given gifts to the poor children during his lifetime to show them God’s love. Luther, loved Saint Nicolas’s example of living a giving caring life in Christ. However, he hated elevating what a saint had done over what God has done in Christ. So Luther encouraged his followers to exchange gifts on Dec 25th in the honor of Christ’s birthday and the gifts he brings us by coming to earth.
In a way the reformer was trying to keep people’s eyes focused on Christ in the midst of their holiday preparations. Kind of ahead of his time, and yet still timely today!? I give thanks that good Lutherans have together once again this advent to help keep our focus on Christ this Christmas. May you be blessed this Christmas not only with a few more days to shop or St. Nicolas goodies in your shoes or stockings but more importantly with the gifts only Christ can bring- true joy, inner peace, eternal love, absolute forgiveness and eternal salvation. Amen.