Brace yourselves. The calendar has turned over to December, which means that the inevitable discussion on the “War on Christmas” will soon see it’s opening salvo for 2013.
It is inevitable. There will be an outrage by a prominent figure about how we have lost our moral fabric because as someone was buying gifts with money they don’t have to impress people that they don’t always like, the cashier will commit the unthinkable sin of wishing us a “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
There will be gnashing of teeth as a town or city somewhere will have a “Holiday Parade” rather than a “Christmas Parade,” as Tulsa had done several years ago. (The parade was subsequently boycotted by one of it’s senators.)
The chorus of those who would profess to be Christians will shout that the “Political Correctness Police” have overstepped yet another boundary and that we should not take the “Christ out of Christmas” as the batch of perceived slights against Christendom freshly reveal themselves for this holiday season.
As a person who would say that Jesus is the most important thing in my life, who has devoted my life to the service of God’s Kingdom, and spends all of my waking moments trying be faithful to that devotion, I have to ask: “What exactly do we mean by putting the ‘Christ back in Christmas'?”
This is Giving Tuesday, when nonprofits of every stripe hope to attract some of the billions of dollars to be spent during the Hanukkah and Christmas season.
Many of those dollars will go to religious groups. Now, new research is expanding the meaning of “religious giving.” It counts motivation for giving, and measures not only gifts to houses of worship but also donations to faith-connected nonprofits that are doing secular service such as fighting poverty or offering job training for the disabled.
“Most people cite their religious commitments, but most also cite the belief that they should give to benefit others. Many people hold both these impulses at the same time,” said Shawn Landres, a co-author of the research report, “Connected to Give: Faith Communities.”
I always had very mixed feelings about Christmas as a kid. My dad — not a religious guy — went all out for this holiday, in the typical secular ways. He bought so many presents that it would end up being hard to make our way through the dining room, where we put the tree. We’d spend at least two weekends in November hanging lights and other swag outside, and the house resonated with Bing Crosby, Dean Marin and John Denver, all wishing us merry Christmas, over and over again.
I came to hate decorating the house. All of that time spent on the roof could have been much better used playing with my friends and, of course, I never hung the lights correctly. I’d flop them along the wrong side of the roofline, only to be sent back to make it right. And suffice it to say that, although I love the Rat Pack singers in particular, hearing any carol more than 43 times in the course of three weeks can sour even the most ardent fans.
Then there was the matter of the gifts. As I said, the piles of boxes were fairly obscene, which actually proved an embarrassment if we had other family visiting for Christmas. I was not a fan of being the center of attention, and opening my remaining presents while jealous cousins looked on made me just want to get it over and done with.
A predominant message of this holiday season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to consume.
While the average North American consumes approximately twice as much as 50 years ago, we are significantly less satisfied with the quality of our lives, which is — of course — contrary to the mass “this stuff will make you happy” messages we receive on countless occasions each day. Nevertheless, we continue to embrace a culture of consumerism, for we consume at staggering rates, not only in an attempt to make right our perceived wrongs, but also because we are led to believe that such devotion contributes to the wellbeing of society. As Victor Lebow states, “Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” According to the most vocalized narratives that affect contemporary life, to be a human of significant value in North America — especially during the month of December — is to be a committed and consistent consumer, even if it leads to our personal and public self-destruction.
Much of our imagery of Advent is tied into the idea of waiting. Waiting for Emmanuel to come. Waiting for God to intervene. We’re in the middle of the night waiting for dawn to arrive. We’re waiting for something different to happen. One image is the pregnant woman waiting to give birth, which ties into the nativity story.
We spend a lot of our lives waiting for various things. Maybe the question for Advent is: What are we waiting for? And when does the waiting end?
So much of our religion has become about waiting. Waiting for heaven. Waiting for God to respond to a prayer and to change something. Waiting for God to right the wrongs. Waiting for God to set things straight. Waiting and waiting and waiting.
What if we’ve got it backward? What if someone is waiting for us?
There is an awesome moment in the opening chapter of the book of Luke where the writer frames his gospel as an epic celestial battle taking place in the heavenly realm: This is the story of the reign of men vs. the reign of God.
Luke makes it clear. What happened in these pages began in the days of King Herod of Judea (Luke 1:5). King Herod was a product and protector of empire. His father was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar. He subsequently appointed Herod military prefect of Galilee. After the death of Julius, Antony, and Octavian, Augustus Caesar favored Herod and gave him the name "king of the Jews," eventually becoming governor of Judea.
Herod was most concerned with maintaining his power — at all costs. He built the Roman Empire at his own people's expense. He built great monuments and structures, including the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, enslaving his own people to do it. He used the Jews' labor to erect temples to pagan deities, and, paranoid of anyone who might usurp his power, Herod schemed against his own family, executing three of his own sons for insurrection — one only a few days before his death.
Enter a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.
I was following the Twitter feed for the conversation between Nadia Bolz-Weber and Amy Butler at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. (#nadiaandamy) about the present realities and possible futures of Christianity in the United States, and it happened. I was happily dividing my cognitive attentions between Twitter and the television when it happened.
There was a Christmas ad.
Sarah Palin is writing another book. This one focuses on putting faith and values back into Christmas.
The former GOP vice presidential candidate is writing, “A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas,” in which she will focus on Christian values and criticize the “over-commercialism” and “homogenization” that have come to define Christmas. The Associated Press says the book will come out in November.
When asked to identify common features of the historical Christmas storyline, many speak of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, angels, King Herod, and of course, the newborn Jesus. But we too often fail to recognize the social circumstances in which Jesus was born; our understanding of the nativity narrative is too often left incomplete.
In the midst of our various congregational and community Christmas celebrations, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Jesus was brought into the world within a condition of homelessness. As a result, one can argue that we cannot fully commemorate Christmas without recognizing its social setting, for the context of Jesus’ birth points us toward the content and concerns of Jesus’ life.
What does the birth of the baby Jesus 2,000 years ago have to offer the violent, troubled world we live in? Or what would Jesus say to the NRA?
I want to suggest — a lot. A whole lot.
Jesus entered the world from a posture of absolute vulnerability — as an unarmed, innocent child during a time of tremendous violence. The Bible speaks of a terrible massacre as Jesus was born, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land hoping to kill Jesus (which the church remembers annually as the massacre of the Holy Innocents).
Perhaps the original Christmas was marked more with agony and grief like that in Connecticut than with the glitz and glamour of the shopping malls and Christmas parades. For just as Mary and Joseph celebrated their newborn baby, there were plenty of other moms and dads in utter agony because their kids had just been killed.
From his birth in the manger as a homeless refugee until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus was very familiar with violence. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus’s coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the suffering on earth. The fact that Christians throughout the world regularly identify with a victim of violence — and a nonviolent, grace-filled, forgiving victim — is perhaps one of the most fundamentally life-altering and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. Or it should be.
So what does that have to do with the NRA? Underneath the rhetoric of the gun-control debate this Christmas is a nagging question: are more guns the solution to our gun problem?
Some of my environmentally conscious friends have expressed concern about having a real Christmas tree in their house – it seems wasteful to cut down an entire tree just for a month or so of décor. After all, climate change is a huge problem, and its potential impacts on the world (most especially the poor) seem contrary to the Christmas spirit.
It’s not a new worry – Teddy Roosevelt actually banned the White House Christmas Tree during his time in office, as he was worried about the conservation implications of people running out to cut down the forest.
We can rest easy, though – the live Christmas tree industry that has developed since that time is actually a benefit to the global climate. Here’s why.
“The Little Drummer Boy” tells a wonderful short story of a poor boy who feels he has no gift to give to the baby Jesus. In spite of his lack of gifts, he offers to play his drum for him, to the delight of all in the stable, especially baby Jesus, who smiles at the drummer boy.
Not only is this song fun to sing with its drum-like “pa-rum-pum-pum-pums,” but also it embraces a non-materialistic message that we all need to hear, especially this time of year. In a society of hyper-commercialized Christmas, where we are bombarded with advertisements filled with the pressure to find the perfect gift, “The Little Drummer Boy” challenges this societal expectation. Perhaps the perfect gift is really just ourselves, being who we are, bringing our own gifts and talents to each other and to a world in deep need of healing.
While the boy is poor and feels like he has nothing to offer, he has a drum and plays for those gathered at the stable — and they are pleased. While our society pressures us to perform, to prove our love and appreciation for someone, it is actually the simple sharing of life, being together with family and friends around good food and drink — and maybe even dance and sing (with a drum!) — that is what we truly need or want around Christmas time. I know this is true for me.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
One carol I’ve been humming this Advent is “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.” It’s not one I grew up singing, but I love it. The most popular contemporary lyrics talk about “three ships come sailing in” to Bethlehem on Christmas morning. Bruce Cockburn says the weird lyrics are the result of English folk in the 18th century hallucinating from eating too much ergot in their moldy English bread. Certainly there were no ships sailing into landlocked Bethlehem.
“What Child is This,” written by William C. Dix in 1865 is one of the few Christmas carols I know of that does not have its own musical arrangement. It uses the tune, “Greensleeves” (a traditional English folk song, thought to have been written in the late 16th or early 17th century), which when paired with Dix’s lyrics creates a haunting and beautiful image of the birth of our Lord.
There’s another song that’s less well-known titled “Child of the Poor,” written by Scott Soper (published in 1994). The counter melody blends stunningly with the melody of “What Child is This.” Reading the lyrics, side by side, gives me chills. In part, because it reminds me that hope is found in low places — God could’ve chosen to be raised in comfort (as Moses was). The cross was only the finale of Jesus’ discomfort. “Child of the Poor” honors the death and discomfort we often don’t want to think about while we’re sitting around the fire drinking cocoa.
Whoops. I was joking with a co-worker today about writing a subversive post about how the song “Do You Hear What I Hear” is an extended metaphor for the Roman Empire’s takeover of Christianity, contorting Jesus’ message for its own ends. “Listen to what I say,” orders the unnamed king, as he urges adoration of Jesus and calls for peace — Pax Romana.
I did a quick Wikipedia search, and learned exactly how wrong I was. Rather than a subversive message about the twisting of the Gospel, “Do You Hear What I Hear” was actually a call for peace during the turbulence of the 1960s.
I mean, think about it: the song talks about the humbleness of the announcement of Jesus’ birth – only the night wind and the little lamb have heard about it. This whisper gets passed up to ever-increasing degrees of authority (a grassroots movement if we’ve ever seen one), until the king himself is calling for peace.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” every year on Christmas Eve for my entire life. But I believe this carol’s lyrics, specifically the words of the first verse, invite a little more thought than we normally give them.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight
For now let’s ignore the historical inaccuracies of the song, and focus on what the words mean, especially the last four lines. How beautiful is it that through the dark world a light came to bind together the hopes and fears of all the years (I choose to see it as past and future) in Jesus?