Driving past a church this morning, I noted that the Nativity scene was already down (sorry Wise Men — snooze, ya’ lose. Wouldn’t want to honor Epiphany by accident or on purpose…) and Mary and Joseph were laying face down in the snow and the baby Jesus was buried under a stack of wood and hay; one small hand reaching out for rescue from the crushing load. It struck me as an “on-the-nose” symbolism of our cultural relationship to Christ and Christmas — honor the holiday event for a few weeks in December, then strike the set and put the props away until next year. And Jesus, for many, is just that — a prop.
When I was a child I once asked my mother why we wrapped Jesus in paper and put him in a dusty box and shut him in a musty, dark closet for eleven months and 25-30 days each year (we didn’t add Jesus to the crèche scene until Christmas Eve, then took things down the week after Christmas. Our wise men arrived around December 10 and just sat on their camels shooting the breeze with Mary, Joseph, the angel, the shepherds and the animals for a couple weeks — but everyone looked appropriately reverent the whole time.) There was something disrespectful about shoving Jesus to the back of the closet when we were through with him. Out of sight, out of mind. My grandmother actually listened to me, and she left the baby Jesus from her Nativity scene on the fireplace mantle all year ’round.
At my local coffee shop, the “Keep Christ in Christmas” sign that’s been in the window for the past month is already gone. Along the roadways, denuded Christmas trees lay abandoned, waiting for pickup. There is no more “Joy to the World” to be found. Once more, we are done with Christmas. But how many of us are also done with Christ? One headline I saw on a news-site says it all: “Soldiers Take Up Arms as Christmas Ends.” Christmas ends. It’s all over. Peace is done, time to kill. Good cheer is finally no longer expected, we can stop pretending to be nice. The Valentine’s candy is already out at the local CVS and Target stores. (And just where is the Martin Luther King, Jr. candy?)
A vacation ad for a Caribbean post-holiday getaway shows Jesus and Santa clinking glasses on a pristine beach, reindeer and camels playing beach volleyball in the background. It seems that Jesus and Santa can’t wait for all the Christmas craziness to end, either. (How an adult Jesus gets the vacation a day after his birth is a bit confusing, but then I didn’t know reindeer could spike…)
Keeping Christ in Christmas seems like only half the battle. The real work begins when we try to keep Christ in the rest of the year. Too many of us drag Jesus out to pay attention to once (or twice) a year, then shove him into a dark corner until we need/want him next. This is a challenge for our communities of faith. Helping people keep a focus on Christ’s role and place in their lives — individually and collectively — is a full-time, year-round task. It brings to mind one of the more startling and discouraging findings from the worship research I did a few year’s back. Two of the interview questions we asked were “What did you learn about God?” and “What did you learn about Jesus?” in sermons that people had heard the same day. One-in-eight (12%) could name something about God and one-in-eleven (9%) could identify something about Jesus, though 71% said that the sermon was “about God” and 86% reported that the sermon was “about Jesus.” We know that worship is somehow about God and Jesus — two safe answers in most churches — but we don’t always pick up exactly what preachers are saying about them. And, did you notice I didn’t mention the Holy Spirit? Well, if you want to hear anything about the Holy Ghost you shouldn’t be United Methodist. One-in-thirty-nine (2%) remember the Holy Spirit being mentioned, but only one-in fifty-five (<2%) can remember what it was. It is only during the Advent season and Christmas, Lent and Easter, that the majority of people can recall specific messages and stories about Jesus. Messages get a little more generic during Kingdomtide. And the trend of our larger, “popular” churches is to preach about people’s needs rather than God’s will. I recently watched a few minutes of a United Methodist church broadcast that would have made Joel Osteen proud — the pastor raved about the untapped power of prayer to help us attain our deepest heart’s desires. Prayer, he admonished, is a tool we have been given with which to build our dream-life. If we don’t have the life we want, it is because we aren’t praying for it. The only mention of God in the entire seven-minute sermon was as the dispenser of goods to those who pray well. There was no mention of Jesus.
Where does Jesus go after Christmas? Wherever we put him. If we set him aside, store him in a box, dump him in the shed under a bale of hay, pack him with the other “decorations” down in the basement or out in the garage, it may actually be symbolic of what we do with him in our lives. I need to be careful to keep him out where I can see him. I need to hold him in my heart as easily as I can hold a Nativity figurine in my hand. I need to see him, attend to him, reflect on him, pray to God in his name, walk with him, talk with him, etc., etc. I can’t do that if I set him aside in the dark recesses of my heart. I need to keep Christ central in my non-Christmas life so that I might live Christmas a little bit more in our non-Christmas world.