CHRISTMAS, ON THE surface, looks like the most wonderful time of year—the season of love, lights, carols, candles, and family reunions, the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Look a bit deeper, though, and one might notice a more idolatrous narrative shining just as brightly: consumerism.
From Black Friday to New Year’s Day, we are inundated with the commercial demands of Christmas. For many, the list of things to do and gifts to purchase can seem endless. We buy into the mantra that the more money we spend, the more love we convey. We become lost in crowded stores, endless websites, and credit card debt. Christians often struggle to faithfully observe Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the miraculous birth of Jesus.
While many of us purchase this spurious version of Christmas, a new movement has been born. It’s called Advent Conspiracy (AC), and its participants are seeking to turn Christmas upside down by exchanging consumption for compassion.
“Advent Conspiracy is not a four-point checklist on how to do Christmas. If anything, it’s a chance for us to rediscover the wonder and the mystery of the incarnation and what that means to us personally and what that might mean for the world,” said Greg Holder, lead pastor of The Crossing church in the St. Louis area.
In 2006 Holder and two clergy friends—Rick McKinley, lead pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore., and Chris Seay, pastor and lead elder of Ecclesia Church in Houston—realized that they and their parishioners “were getting through the season with no sense of joy or celebration, with almost a sense of survival.” In response, the three pastors formed Advent Conspiracy to help people turn away from the hyper-consumerism of Christmas.
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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.
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 Worldand 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?