Well,it’s hot. It’s hard to say much more than that about the weather these days. The thermometer in my car, though it tends to exaggerate, said it was 80 degrees when I left the house this morning at 7:30. Last Friday night–one of those evenings when the temperatures lingered in the 90s until well after the sun went down, Ian and I decided to take in a Charlotte Knights game at their uptown stadium. Oh, it was brutal, both because the Knights were terrible and because, even after the sun set, the concrete from the stadium continued to radiate the heat it had absorbed during the day. If I were one who used a certain type of language, I would have said it was “as hot as hell.” It was all we could do to make it to the seventh-inning stretch, after which we could take it no more. What a relief to finally get back to the car and the blast of the a/c.
Sadly, we’re not even to the “dog days” of summer yet, but these temperatures make me think of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel. If you remember, both men die and are buried and the rich man finds himself in the flames of Hades–another biblical word for what we might understand as hell–begging for a drop of water to cool his tongue.
Why am I starting what’s supposed to be a Christmas sermon by talking about the weather? Because–brace yourselves–Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Shocking, I know, but there is no mention in the Bible of the season or month or time of day of Jesus’ birth. He’s just as likely to have been born in the bright mid-summer as in the bleak mid-winter. It looks like the earliest mention of December 25 as the celebration of Jesus’ birth comes from a mid fourth-century Roman Almanac.
There are a couple of theories as to why December 25. It could be that Christians usurped pagan festivals of light, layering their celebration of Jesus’ birth right on top of them. If there were already festivals going on in the mid-winter, then it was easier to make the transition from pagan festivals to Christian ones. Another theory suggests that Jesus was conceived and died on the same day. We know Jesus died around Passover, say, March 25. If he was conceived the same day, add nine months, and what do you get as his birthday? You got it. December 25.
Celebrating Christmas in December makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider the emphasis on light, especially in the Gospel of John: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light is a good metaphor for when the days grow short and when we long for the return of the sun. In fact, the Advent wreath seems to have developed from a practice of farmers in the Northern hemisphere. They would hang their wagon wheels on the wall during the winter months and and place candles on them to mark the return of light, when they could once again return to their fields. And, for those of us who would take 95-degrees and 100% humidity any day over 35-degrees, cold, and rainy (I’m one of them), the metaphor works well. We understand the longing of the sun to return and the weight of the world that the winter months represent.
But what if Jesus had been born in the mid-summer? What if, as the Australians do every year, along with everyone else in the Southern hemisphere, we celebrated the birth of Jesus now, at the brightest, hottest time of the year? Some scholars, in fact, have understood the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night to suggest that Jesus was born during the lambing season–that is, the spring.
What if Jesus had been born in the mid-summer? What would we hope to be fulfilled in his coming? What are our longings in the these hot summer months?Our hopes and expectations? Because I guarantee you that Jesus meets whatever hopes, dreams, and expectations this season amplifies for you as fully as he does those in the bleak mid-winter.
On the level of physical comfort, most of us are like the rich man in Hades and longing for some relief from the heat and intensity of what feels like hell. If your air conditioner breaks, like ours did two weeks ago, it becomes all the more intense.
On a deeper level–a spiritual or emotional level–you can experience hell on earth in so many ways. I remember describing a certain challenging situation to a friend one time. “What fresh hell,” she replied. Perhaps it’s the suffocating feeling of not being able to escape a situation. You have an idea of what this means for you. We are all too familiar with that feeling of the hellish intensity of life.
Jesus came into this world to offer us relief from this intensity. And if Jesus had been born in summer–which may have been the case–we would certainly cling to this particular gift of his birth. We would picture the misery of Mary carrying her unborn child through the summer and Joseph’s sweaty and dusty feet as they made their way to Bethlehem. Once the baby was born, we would imagine the relief as he slept among the animals, the night air cooling them off. This is the kind of relief Jesus gives us. He douses the flames and heat of what feels “as hot as hell.”
And he does it through the very means we would expect: water. Just look at what Paul says about the coming of Jesus in his letter to Titus: “But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
You’ve probably rarely heard this passage read at Christmas, because it is reserved for Christmas Day and because churches don’t often have a service on Christmas Day unless, of course, it falls on a Sunday. But here, Titus compares the coming of Jesus who saves us to the water that we long for and seek during these hot summer days. Water equals refreshment and relief. Of course Paul is talking about the water of baptism here–the water that claims you as God’s child, the water that calls you beloved despite whether you have a hard time believing it or not, the water that washes away dirt, grime, and sin, the water that gives you second, third, and fourth, and fifth chances, the water that cools your tongue and skin, the water that gives you mercy, the water that rejuvenates you, the water that refreshes you and keeps your hydrated, the water that helps you grow. The gifts of water are the gifts of Jesus.
In the bright mid-summer, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. Jesus is here. On this hot, humid, stifling day, drink deeply of his presence. And Merry Christmas. Amen.