Once More, With Feeling

It’s Advent time again; the beginning of the “church year.”  We change the paraments to purple (or blue, in some cases), hang the greens, set up the advent wreath with candles, and we engage in the ceremonies of the season leading to the birth of Christ.  How do we keep the “been there, done that” jaded cynicism out of the experience?  Is it possible to infuse the season of Advent with a true spirit of anticipation and waiting, looking forward with hope to the event that will forever change the course of history?  Can we make the biggest deal of all time a big deal one more time?

We do try.  Many people love the weeks leading to Christmas Eve, and all the special music and pageantry.  But it brings to mind a conversation I had with about sixty 18-30 year-olds at Vanderbilt University about four years ago.  We were talking about the significant experiences that occur in church.  When one young woman shared how much she loved going to her home church on Christmas Eve, a resounding rebuttal came from about 40 other sources.  Opinion was divided, but the vast majority of young people said they stayed away from church at Christmas and Easter because of the contrived phoniness and generic activities they experience.  “My church tries to be so sincere and significant that it makes me laugh out loud,” a seminary senior reflected. “I cannot believe how manipulative and insipid church gets at Christmas.”  A young man echoed the sentiment, and added, “Everything seems dumbed down at Christmastime.  Like we would rather focus on the fairy tale than the most impressive paradigm shift in the history of the world.”

Three subsequent meetings with young people from around the country confirmed the opinions of the group I was with then.  “I think we can’t experience Advent fully because our lives are too easy.  Hopeless people need hope, lost people need a savior, oppressed people need a liberator — we have it too easy,” remarked one woman. “I’m not sure we would want Jesus to be born today.  It would force us to change things we don’t want to change.”  The majority of younger people I talked to concur.  We determined that we would not accept a savior who was:

  • poor
  • homeless
  • rich
  • uneducated
  • highly educated
  • non-White
  • female
  • old
  • young
  • gay
  • critical of materialism
  • born in another country
  • obese
  • Jewish

…the list goes on and on.  Most younger people feel that the church today would not want to have much of anything to do with the true incarnation of God come to earth.  One young man said, “Forget about crucifying him when he grows up.  Middle class Americans would reject anyone who didn’t affirm and confirm their own view of who is acceptable and who isn’t.  Liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, Democrats and Republicans — all would find a thousand and one reasons to reject anyone God would send.  We love Christmas because we have tamed it and made it innocuous and safe.  We would hate a real advent of a real savior calling us to real transformation.”

Do we really want Jesus the Christ to be born in our world once more?  Do we want to have our values and life practices turned on their heads?  We don’t seem to take much of the gospels seriously to begin with — do we really think God has changed and that it would be easier today than 2000 years ago?  Christmas is indeed a blessing, but it also is a responsibility. To receive the Christ is to agree to fundamental and wide-sweeping change — both personal and communal.  We will not only think differently, but act differently.  We will give more and complain less.  We will sacrifice personal comfort for caring and compassion.  We will leave home and family safety to venture out to serve strangers in the world.  We will remember the true meaning of Christmas, and it will change us.

What are we truly anticipating?  Who do we really hope will come?  A savior to make us new people, or a cute little baby we can adore and ignore?  I don’t agree with every criticism I hear from younger Christians, but I think they’re onto something here.  We have watered down Christmas in the church.  We gripe that it has been co-opted by pop culture, but we have also done it to ourselves.  We need to wake up and realize that Christmas is much more than warm feelings and happy events.  Christmas is the real “call to action” of all men and women who want to become disciples through whom God transforms the world.

12 replies

  1. I agree that our world is in a real mess and we need to bring the message of transforming lives starting with our own but our lectionary today was telling us just that. Watch !! Be ready!! God knew what he was doing when he presented Himself as a baby. He knew what he was doing when He was nailed to the cross. He knows what he is doing when he says he will come again. The Bible will remain my message.

  2. I do not agree. I know many people at my church who celebrate the coming of their Lord, HIs saving work in their lives and His willingness to become a man, and before that, a helpless baby, to save them. I, and many others, don’t think of “baby Jesus” as “cute” or “comfortable.” He is the coming into the world of its Creator God–HIs birth is awesome, in the old meaning of awe-inspiring, the start of an invasion to recapture territory taken by Satan, at the cost of HIs own Life and death.

    I think it is way too easy for us, especially when young, to be cynical about everyone else’s motives–I know; I was young in the 1970s, and made the same assumptions about older people. But as I have grown, I have learned that each of those ordinary “complacent” people I see in church has his or her own story, own struggles, own victories that I may never see or know of, just because on the surface things look fine and easy.

    Do I think we need, as a church and as individuals, to follow Christ more fully, to realize HIs life-changing message more completely, to reach out to others and move outside of where we feel “comfortable”? Of course. But I continue to be amazed at the quiet heroes I discover when I really get to know some of the those people I have been tempted to dismiss as “ordinary.”

    So, if I were talking to these teens, I would ask them on what basis they are so sure that the ritual they see is “manipulative and insipid,” and that the people around them in church are only welcoming a “cute little baby they can ignore.” Do they, like God, see the heart? Do they know the struggles? As C.S. Lewis said, “If I, being what I am, can in some way consider myself a Christian, why should the different vices (sins and struggles) of the people in the next pew mean that their religion is all hypocrisy and sham?”

    This is a message we all need to consider, but perhaps especially the young,

    • Excellent thoughts, Nancy. Good counter balance to the other comments, and I totally agree about being careful in judging the motives of others. If these young people have ideas to offer about how to make the Advent / Christmas worship services more meaningful, I hope they will share their thoughts rather than mock what they do not like.

  3. I’m not sure how well we can anticipate an “event that will forever change the course of history” without a clear articulation of where we currently are – short of what we can see as better and much shorter of what we can’t yet see as even betterer.

    If we can’t tell the truth of our current setting, we can’t anticipate better. Advent is not just anticipation of some variation on a theme. Anything worth the symbol of G*D is more creative than repetitive. If we haven’t despaired by the end of Advent it probably hasn’t been an advent. If Christmas doesn’t come as a surprise, it probably isn’t Christmas.

    We are still captured by visions of empire dancing in our heads. A part of our Advent work is clarifying what would bring healing and wholeness to a broken and divided world, starting in a church that is as broken and divided as said world. A distinction between rite and reality would be be helpful. Surely G*D can do incarnational work in our time as well as once upon a time. Until we are on the lookout for such, we will only have sweet baby Jesus safely chained to a manger.

  4. Advent isn’t even initially about the “babe in the manger” at all, and the readings only begin to turn in that direction in week 3 or 4 (depending on which year we’re in). Advent always begins being precisely about what may be, for most, a very unwelcome event indeed– the second coming of Christ as judge of the living and the dead.

    And this year’s readings on the first Sunday after Christmas (Herod’s decree to slay infants in Judea) reminds us just how unwelcome the birth of Jesus was in his own day.

    The texts are there in the lectionary– and they stridently call for us to wake up! That is, if we will in fact attend to them in worship and actually preach them rather than repeat the mantra found in so many of our “cherished” Christmas songs and hymns “Sleep, baby Jesus– sleep!”

  5. Amen, and amen. Would that we can regain that edge of preaching a dangerous message about the truth that the birth of the Christ Child brings. We have co-opted what it means to be a Christ follower by the westernization of Jesus. We sing the carols, we hear the story, we see the candles of the Advent wreath, and we feel like we’ve rediscovered the Babe of the manger once more. But it’s all a sham. Would that we truly followed the message of the Messiah, and in so doing transform the world.

    Keep preaching it my brother, there are far too many in comfortable places who seem to think that all is right with the world.


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