It is the end of November and we are deeply into the “holiday season”. Christmas lights and pumpkins have been in the same store aisle. The season that used to begin on the Friday after Thanksgiving has been steadily creeping; first past Thanksgiving, then past Halloween and now into September. Each year I feel at greater and greater personal risk of bursting into flames by the friction between the secular and the sacred. At this time of year, spontaneous combustion feels like a distinct possibility.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating that the only holiday in December should be Christmas. My concern is with the commercialization and trivializing of Christmas. I understand that persons of other faiths celebrate other holidays at this time of year. The Jewish and Muslim holidays that occur during “the holidays” should be celebrated as the distinctive and important holy days which they are. In fact, I hope other religious celebrations successfully avoid the enthusiastic secular embrace society has given Christmas.
What frustrates me is the commercial and civic forces that cast the entire “holiday season” as a secular Christmas. Stores and communities alike juxtapose Santa and shepherds, the search for a Savior and the search for presents, ornaments and angels, presents and holy presence. Now of course, one can correctly point out that many of these symbols have Christian origins. One of the interesting talents of the Christian faith has been our ability to transform the symbols and festivals of other cultures and incorporate them into Christianity. But the early church was trying to bring new meaning and new life into beloved existing traditions, not create a holiday theme for every salable item.
We Christians have no one to blame but ourselves for the warm fuzzy holiday season that threatens suffocate us each winter. We can be our own worst enemy in the way we trivialize our own stories. In many churches the highlight of the season is the Christmas pageant. We turn the angel of the Lord and the breathtaking heavenly host, who terrified the shepherds into a precious procession of toddlers with cardboard wings and tinsel halos. We trailer in sheep and donkeys for atmosphere. We position Matthew’s wisemen next to Luke’s shepherds and leave out the pointed social commentary of the Magnificat and the massacre of the infants. I’m not advocating we rewrite our pageants to add politics and murder, but we do need to extricate ourselves from the overabundance of children dressed as fluffy sheep and bathrobe clad shepherds. Matthew and Luke wrote powerful stories about the Messiah’s birth and we need to let them be powerful.
More and more I have come to appreciate the Nativity stories as a clash of wills and intentions- God’s desire to rescue and redeem the world through love and sacrifice over against the empire’s desire to crush and kill for temporal power. The Nativity stories set up the tension that exists through out the gospels and continues into today. God comes to us loving and saving and the world responds with fear and death. These stories are rich and full of meaning and worth taking seriously. As my appreciation for the Nativity stories grows, so does my frustration with a culture that trivializes these stories.
But as I brace myself for weeks of frustration over the marginalization of Christmas, it occurs to me that the margins may just be where Christmas belongs. The Messiah is born to common people in a backwater of the Roman empire. A place that doesn’t know how proper Roman subjects are supposed to behave. A place full of turmoil and rebellion with no appreciation or gratitude for the gifts of order and culture the Roman Empire imposes. Jesus’ birth is of questionable propriety. The angelic announcement is to the wrong folks, not the powerful Roman elite but shepherds working the night shift. A group of wise men march into Jerusalem and not so wisely ask King Herod where the true king is. Both Matthew and Luke give us odd stories and we shouldn’t let their familiarity blind us to that. The Gospels place Jesus’ life in opposition to the status quo right from the start- actually even before his birth. Jesus starts on the margins and there he stays.
Perhaps that’s where Christmas belongs too; the religious holiday, not the secular extravaganza. Perhaps we need to search for it off the beaten path. what if we ask the empire of consumerism who the true king is. What would our Christmas be like if our holiday was our holy day celebrated on the margins next to the Christ child?
Some Advent resources:
This is a very incomplete list. Please share your favorite Advent and Christmas resources with the rest of us.