I need to confess. I missed four opportunities to witness to my Christian faith this week, where I had clear occasions to challenge, confront or correct opinions about Advent and Christmas. I didn’t say anything then, but I’m going to say something now.
#1 Advent is NOT Christmas (or Epiphany) — last week I attended a church (thankfully NOT United Methodist, though I know full well it easily could have been) to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent by singing songs about the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Wise Men. During the lighting of the Advent wreath candle, the litany claimed that we light the candle of hope ” for the second coming of the living Christ.” We were reminded that Advent is when we celebrate “the birth of the Messiah.” This is from a church that prides itself on reaching the “unchurched.” What a confused mish-mash?! The relentless misinformation in this service might be viewed as insignificant by some, but I found it troubling… but not as troubling as the call I received from a confused parishioner who wanted to double-check what her pastor said in a children’s sermon.
#2 Padding the Myth of Christmas — I answered the phone to speak with a woman who was confused and concerned about what her pastor told the children in her church (this, unfortunately, IS a United Methodist Church). She said that the pastor told the children that Advent and Christmas is the season where magic becomes real and that miracles happen. The pastor told the children that God himself came to earth in the Advent season and that Mary had a baby in record time. The pastor told the children that angels appeared on the earth to people who believed in them. The pastor said that the Bible says that the animals actually spoke when Jesus was born. The pastor reported that lowly shepherds and powerful kings stood shoulder to shoulder to worship Jesus the night he was born. The woman said she liked the idea of the story, but really didn’t think it was appropriate for the pastor of the church to essentially make things up and add them to the story of the Nativity. I asked the woman what she wanted me to do about her concerns and she assured me that she merely wanted my perspective on the veracity of her pastor before she went into share her concerns.
#3 How Can We Keep Christmas from Being Too Religious? — I attended the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert this past Friday evening (my wife, Barbara was in the chorus, and she was fantastic) and sat next to some very nice couples. As the concert came to an end, an elderly woman close to me turned to her husband and said, “I absolutely love this concert every year, but I don’t understand why they have to sing those religious songs!”
#4 Stupid Christians Ruin Everything! — At my favorite coffee shop I overheard some of the regulars talking about the holiday season. Here is the gist of what two of the older gentlemen in the group were saying. “Christmas would be fine if the Christians would just butt out. Forcing their beliefs on everyone else makes Christmas unpleasant and irritating. No one really believes in all that stuff anymore anyway, and Christmas is really about music and food and presents and decorations, and imposing a religious theme on it ruins everything.” About the only sentiment these two men didn’t share was some form of: “if they want a holiday so bad, why don’t they start one of their own!”
I hesitate to go on — I would hate to be lumped in with the “war on Christmas” chuckleheads — but I am concerned. The Christian church is on the brink of losing Christmas! Not because it is being taken from us, but because we are happily, ignorantly, and obliviously frittering it away. We don’t know our own story. We don’t know how to tell it. We can’t defend it. And we can’t open it up to un- or other-believers without it being a competition or confrontation. But, let’s be clear, Christmas is ours. We started it. Oh, sure, we impinged on harmless Pagans to put it in the bleak midwinter, but that was a long time ago. Yes, we have allowed a fat toyman to divert attention from Jesus; yes, we have sold out our commitment to justice, equality, grace, peace, hope and joy to cookies, candy, talking reindeer and snowmen, lavish decorated trees and regifting, but hey, can’t we take a joke? There is no winnable argument that Christmas is something less than a true religious celebration, but the religious celebration is still a part of it, and Christians have nothing to apologize for. I am not one to trade-off “Merry Christmas” for “Happy Holidays.” I don’t offer the greeting as an insult, and I cannot control those who choose to hear it that way. But I am a Christian, and I am ecstatic that the Son of God came to earth, and I will continue to recognize that tenet of my faith whenever I can. And, by the way, I don’t think the animals talked when Jesus was born (Matthew and Luke neither one even mention animals) and I wish we in the church could think of something more important in this story to tell our kids.
Consider this a call to “occupy Christmas.” Let’s take it back, make it ours, and offer to share it with anyone and everyone who cares.
Categories: Advent, Christian witness, Identity & Purpose, The United Methodist Church
Actually the idea that the date of Christmas was established as December 25 / January 6 because of pagan solstice festivals is another one of those Christmas myths you refer to. The Eastern and Western churches had good reasons for selecting those dates — reasons that has nothing to do with pagan festivals. See http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v. When we concede that the date for Christmas was estabished by the Church for reasons other than its sincere belief that it was the birth date of Christ, we participate in the secularization of this Holy day. Let’s try to use Christmas as an opportunity to reach out to world that needs the Savior so!
Even in its fourth century roots, the 25th of December was an occasion for a very different type of “celebration” (if that term even truly applies). The hodge podge of cultural observances, rituals, traditions, and accomodations that comprise “Christmas” in Western culture today is an irredeemable tangle — to try to rescue the “pure essence” at this point is nigh on to impossible. Which doesn’t mean we couldn’t create something with greater integrity and focus for the future were we to truly care to do so. My lament is that we are perfectly fine with the way things are (or we would more seriously attempt to change things for the better).
Dan, I think it would have helped if I would have typed the right passage reference… Sorry. It should be Mark 13:24-37.
I do, however, agree with your assessment of Mark 12. I also completely agree that “telling the story out of order or drawing conclusions prematurely … makes it incomprehensible.” I guess what I’m getting at is that a proper telling of the story – in the right order – will not confuse most people, even if you are talking about more than one aspect of the gospel message.
I don’t disagree, in essence. My concern is that a significant number of people in our congregations — even life-long members — don’t have a firm grasp on the larger picture or any form of “right order.” Shifting to one of the other examples — though I do believe they illustrate exactly the same thing — the pastor who teaches that there were animals at the birth of Jesus (let alone talking animals), that the magi were kings three in number (named Caspar, Balthazar & Melchior) from the orient and that they stood shoulder to shoulder with shepherds on Christmas morning are perpetuating a popular story that most of our church people “know” — though there is no scriptural validation for such a tale. I heard one of our preeminent preachers in United Methodism say a few years ago that, “the birth narratives contained in our four gospels combine to give a rich description of that miraculous event.” I can’t say what Mark and John contribute to this “rich description,” but I am sure that some people came away with the idea that all four of our canonical gospels contain a birth narrative. Many folks think this is nit-picking, and perhaps an isolated instance is. But the impact is cumulative, and we are fostering a Biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance when we assume the average person in the pew is savvy enough to navigate all our convolutions. The better we tell the story, and the more clearly and carefully we offer guidance, the better off everyone will be.
Dan, what is wrong with saying that we “light the candle of hope ” for the second coming of the living Christ.” “? I realize that our hope in Advent and Christmas is more than this, but isn’t at least part of our hope – especially now that Christ has come, died, rose again, and ascended to heaven?
PS – i agree with everything else you said in there! At every church I’ve been at, every year I have to explain to my music people the difference in Advent and Christmas. Not just the congregation – but the music people – who have been selecting songs in December for many years – but have yet to understand Advent.
Theologically, our Advent remembrance is for the coming of the Messiah into the world. The Easter theology of the risen Christ and the Return theology of the parousia on the Day of Judgment both have their history and place — which is not Advent. Many people are already confused enough about the theological unfolding of the gospel story. More and more, that confusion is coming from within the church rather than from those olutside the church. Helping people understand the full story without conflation, contradiction and misinformation is — in my opinion — important. Teaching about the anticipation of the Messiah, the resurrection and ascension, and a future return all need exploration — but maybe not all at the same time!
Thanks Dan! And yes, I agree that many people are confused about the gospel. Even when we present it correctly, people are still confused, much less when we conflate and contradict and misinform. However, the fact that some people will be confused by the gospel doesn’t stop me from presenting it or cause me to water it down (not that I’m reading that into your post – I’m just saying…).
So i guess I’m going to respectfully disagree with you on this point. As a pastor, I have no problem presenting the Hope of Jesus’ Coming during Advent. As I hinted at above, this is not our only Hope, but it is part of our hope. It’s a way of taking the Hope of the Israelites in the Old Testament and making it relevant for people today.
One other thought: I went back and checked on the Lectionary readings for the First Sunday in Advent and saw that Mark 12:24-37 was the gospel passage for that day – one that specifically addresses the Second Coming. How would you reconcile your definition of Advent Hope with this reading?
I see the resurrection connection — in response to the denial of the Sadduccees — but no mention of the second coming. For the Sadduccees who allow for no resurrection, this makes sense. The Advent association in this passage lies in vss. 35-37. This passage is an authentication passage of the credentials of Jesus as Messiah — all grounded in the living Christ of the time, not the risen Christ or the returning Christ. I know we have creativly superimposed this reading back (since we know how the story ends) but what is there and what is intended are less clear. I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusions, I simply maintain that you’re revealing the later chapters in the early story. In the same way that few people would claim the Bethlehem story is a resurrection narrative, I believe few would claim the annunciation refers to the second coming. I don’t think telling the story out of order or drawing conclusions prematurely waters something down as much as makes it incomprehensible. The Advent story is a paradigm shift from Jewish expectation to Christian realization; the second coming is a paradigm shift from Christian rescue in the face of apostasy to Christian redemption — two very different, though equally important, aspects of the same story.
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that we’re in danger of losing our grip on Christmas. But for me…. I really wish there was a clear, definite line drawn between what is truly Christmas for Christians and what was Christmas for our wider culture. To me, it would be best if they had different names, if they could be different holidays – they’re so different in focus (and we need to reclaim that or admit it). I wish we could step back from the excessive gift giving, Santa, etc., celebrate it as it’s own thing, and reclaim OUR Christmas. Not doing this has two consequences, as I can see:
1. To me, it’s the mixing and confusing traditions and our fear that Christmas is ‘slipping away from us’ that corrupts our own tradition. In our desperation, we throw our name into the rituals that don’t represent us because it’s an a holiday that our culture has grown to love, even if it’s incongruent from our focus. Do we want to be associated with the silliness of Santa and that kind of magic that only children can believe in?
2. At this point, when the ‘general culture’ has ‘claimed’ Christmas, our insistence on it being Christian probably makes people feel like we’re stealing their holiday, they get defensive and even less likely to think about Christianity in a serious light.
Just thoughts (written during my UM History and Doctrine class…)
Glad to give you something to do during class! You may be right — we may have let things get so out of hand that we can never redeem those things unique to the faith experience from the larger cultural circus. I hope we find a way to celebrate the joy, without killing the Spirit!
While I totally agree with you, I don’t think there is any room left for us to occupy Christmas, Dan. And, frankly, I don’t know that we need to. What consumer-driven “Christianity” and culture celebrate as Christmas isn’t *actually* Christmas. The Christmas you describe as genuine doesn’t need reclaimed. It just needs to be lived with joy by the faithful.
I love Advent and Christmas. Thanks for this blog that helps me amid all the hustle and bustle of these days of advent to remember not to lose sight of the true meaning. I too do not “trade-off “Merry Christmas” for “Happy Holidays,” because I am a Christian, and I am ecstatic that the Son of God came to earth, and I will continue to recognize that tenet of my faith whenever I can.”