The first Christmas card was designed in 1843 by the artist J.C. Horsley and measured about the size of a postcard. The first Christmas card shows a Victorian family celebrating the gentle spirit of the season around a table. Flanking the scene of Christmas cheer and celebration is the carrying out of the biblical concern for “Clothing the Naked” and “Feeding the Hungry.” But to grasp the first Christmas card is to allow it to be said of us, as it was said of the converted Scrooge at the close of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
A glance at Philippians 4:2-9 reminds us that John the Baptist’s message was hardly music to the ears. John’s denouncement of the crowd as a “brood of vipers” is not a customary Christmas greeting. Yet its very harshness forces us to re-examine the nature of “advent.” It is grounded in the “good news” of Christ’s coming characterized by five ingredients that set it apart from all other good news before that date and all the good news that comes and will come after that date. What are these five identifying marks of a true Christmas “greeting”?
First, is it new? In a little town, just down the hill from Jerusalem, the Word became flesh. God exchanged vows with humanity, for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer. A true Christmas greeting, therefore, never sounds hackneyed or rerun. Its central message is so startlingly fresh that while it may become a staple, it can never become stale.
Second, is it scandalous? The proud and rich were not invited to Jesus’ first birthday party – only those who wouldn’t mind stooping to enter the cave where Christ was born. Its scandal lies that in the dirty straw of a dingy cave – with a squalling newborn, an exhausted mother and a nervous father – the glory of God shone all around.
Third, is it excessive? John Sutherland Bonnell says that Only God could have dreamed the Christmas story. An awesome love of Joseph for Mary; an awesome love of Mary for God; an awesome love of shepherds for a child; an awesome love of God for each one of us.
Fourth, does it promote love? After John the Baptist denounces the milling crowd as “vipers” he proceeds to give them counsel. He encourages them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”. Martin Luther liked to remind his listeners that when God speaks to humanity, God always speaks in baby talk because God is love and bends to our infirmities.
Fifth, does it bring joy? Have you ever wondered what the shepherds talked about as they journeyed back to their sheep after visiting Bethlehem? Doesn’t it seem more likely that the shepherds were so full of joy at what they had witnessed that they went home singing and praising God and talking nonstop to one another about their impressions? Christmas is joy!
The first Christmas card actually got it right with its various scenes and panels. It is recognizing the arrival of God in our midst – for our sake and for our salvation. Our holiday wishes for you were expressed by one who said: He has scattered the proud … He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. And sent the rich away empty. Merry Christmas!
(Rev. Sam A. Storey, Sr. is Senior Associate Minister, Emeritus, First United Methodist Church of Marietta, Georgia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org