At this time of year I usually say that unless we use the season of Advent to reflect on how much we need God to come into our world and our lives, we won’t celebrate Christmas well. That way we can be looking forward with longing to the meaning of Christmas. But I think grasping the full significance of Jesus’ birth also requires looking back at Christmas in the light of Pentecost.
The gospel lection for 3rd Sunday of Advent features the ministry of John the baptizer. To get to the punch-line of John’s proclamation, we may wish to include up to verse 34: “He (Jesus) is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” We tell children that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. But the specialness of that birthday, above all others, remains hidden until we tell the rest of his story. Some Christians always want to mention the significance of Jesus’ death in their observance of his birth. Even then we miss something of Christmas if we don’t also remember Pentecost.
Jesus’ birthday is not special just because he was a unique person. After all we are all unique persons and the birth of every baby special. Jesus wasn’t the only, and won’t be the last, baby born to refugee parents in harsh circumstances. Indeed many refugee mothers giving birth in the strife of our present war torn regions might consider the typical manger scene an improvement on their circumstances.
There is not room to list the others, but Jesus is not the only one whose birth was predicted by prophets or angels. Jesus isn’t the only teacher or healer or miracle worker. He is certainly not the only one crucified by the Romans. Not even Jesus’ ascension into heaven is unique since such is also said of Elijah and perhaps Enoch. It may surprise some but in the Bible Jesus isn’t even the only Anointed “Messiah” or “Christ”.
No, the culminating work of Jesus Christ, that is uniquely his, is Pentecost. After his ascension Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father and sends the Holy Spirit into the lives of his followers to continue his mission in the world. Without Pentecost there wouldn’t even be any church to tell the Christmas story.
On the day of Pentecost Peter said: “Let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ …so change the direction of you lives, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:36-38)
Celebrating Christmas without turning to God to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit is like getting presents but never opening them, or like going to a banquet but only watching the others eat. If you are not sure you have received either God’s forgiveness or the gift of the Holy Spirit, just ask! But you had better be ready for your own Pentecost! When you are assured of God’s forgiveness and allow the Holy Spirit to work freely in your life, your Christmases will never be same again.