Three related unrelated stories:
- sitting in a coffee shop listening to three women talk about how much they HATE Christmas shopping… yet they are doing it daily, one of them reports that she has spent over $10,000 so far this year (to be fair, including jewelry she bought herself), and the shared an encyclopedic knowledge of sales, stores, and special items they want to buy. The longer they spoke, the more excited they got, leaning toward each other, raising their voices, becoming breathless and agitated. What I witnessed were symptoms similar to those displayed by addicts. One woman confessed that she has a “pact” with her husband — their goal each year is to make sure they spend more on Christmas presents than anyone else in the family. She said, “It’s a little contest we have to do Christmas the best in our family.”
- an excerpt from an email where a gentleman’s main point is that I am making a mountain out of a molehill: “I don’t see the big deal about commercializing Christmas. Religious people have every right and freedom to keep Christmas holy — they simply need to refuse to get drawn into the cultural crap. Let Christians take Jesus and the star and the wise men and church and let the rest of us have fine food and drink, trees with pretty lights, Rudolph and Frosty and Santa. I don’t get where you think religion should dictate the holiday for the whole world. My mom is a Christian and she isn’t worried about losing her faith because Christmas is a whole lot bigger than just Jesus.”
- a response from the pastor of the southern church I mentioned in my last post about their “religion-free Christmas Eve services.” He told me this was an evangelism program to draw in non-Christians and give them “a pleasant, exciting, upbeat, non-threatening” experience in a church. He told me “obviously there is some religion — we sing Joy to the World and Silent Night — undeniably religious songs.” But instead of prayers they offer personal Christmas memory reflections; instead of scriptures, they talk about the opportunity people have to make a difference in the world by supporting any of the dozens of good projects the church is doing; instead of a sermon, they show clips from old Christmas movies and ask the congregation reflection questions on what these clips are trying to say. Together, they sing nostalgic Christmas songs such as I’ll Be Home for Christmas, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, The Christmas Song, and (oh, yeah…) they slip in Silent Night and Joy to the World. “This is our most popular and well-attended Christmas Eve services — many of our full-time members (note to self: are ‘part-time’ church members a good idea?) also attend; but we ask them to tone down the religious stuff in sensitivity to the audience we are trying to reach.”
“Audience we are trying to reach.” “Christmas a whole lot bigger than Jesus.” “Do Christmas better than others.” What inspirational ideas — and yet, they are not rare or unique. Scary, isn’t it? Christmas is this big, hairy deal that is completely out of control — we let it happen to us and overwhelm us when we’re not careful (and even when we are!). All of this, however, is learned behavior — and what is once learned can be unlearned. Take the shopping for example. There is nothing inherently consumeristic about Christmas. Gift-giving began as a simple exchange symbolic of the gifts presented to the Christ child in Matthew’s gospel. In most cultures observing such, the gifts were given in conjunction with Epiphany or the arrival of the new year. A single, token gift – given in the spirit of kindness, often hand-made or passing on something of personal meaning and significance. The core intention was to show appreciation and to honor the relationship. My wife and I stepped back from the shopping frenzy a few years ago and began supporting charitable causes in honor of family and friends. Most of our acquaintances don’t need more “stuff,” and the crazed violence of holiday shopping lost any appeal long ago. We remember people, honor them, and seek to connect over things we mutually care about. Oh, I am sure some would rather get a box to unwrap, but no relations have been destroyed by our thoughtless digression from materialism. Shopping is NOT a competitive sport, and we truly need to rethink our current system which sometimes leads to bullets, tasers, pepper spray, and running the person down who bought the last item you were hoping for. We have systematically taken the joy of gift-giving and turned it into an onerous and unpleasant burden.
I cannot, will not, and have no stake in, denying that Christmas has become “bigger” than just Jesus. What I contend is that this is not necessarily a good thing. My waist is bigger than it used to be, and I am not thrilled about this reality. My nose is bigger than other people’s noses, and I am not thrilled about this either. I am sometimes sad that such an amazing pair of stories as our two nativity tales are modified and “improved” to the point where they are unrecognizable as anything coming from scripture. Why do we pastors feel compelled to fix what isn’t broken and pad out what is elegant and sublime? (I’m guilty of it. When in the local parish, I used to strategize ways to make Christmas Eve unforgettable and “even better than last year.”) But bigger isn’t always better, and more is not preferable to less. I have never asked to get rid of Santa — I just don’t want to meet him in Bethlehem. Rudolph is not a wise man. Mary and Joseph were not cute frogs, ducks, snow people, sausages, Precious Moments big-eyed children, or Sesame Street characters. The baby Jesus was not inflatable, nor did he have a light bulb in his head. This isn’t about sacrilege but about not cheapening and degrading that which we revere. I am fine with a reindeer with a shiny nose; not so much with a glow-in-the-dark nativity. I want those of us who say Jesus is important to us to act like it, and to sort out the egregious hodge-podge of secular and sacred so that we maintain integrity in our faith as we fully engage and embrace in our cultural celebrations. Too much to ask?
I guess I believe it is wrong for churches to offer non-religious Christmas services. To deny who we are and what we believe to make non-believers more comfortable seems like a slippery-slope to me. What is our witness? Come to church so you won’t hear the Christmas story? I can do that in a bar, watching It’s A Wonderful Life, or seeing the Rockettes at Radio City. If I want to avoid Christmas, church is the last place I am going to head. And if I am going to church, I think it should act like one. Making the church into a holiday Venus Fly Trap to capture unwary agnostics is dishonest and more than a little ridiculous. Strategically watering down our story so that no one will know what we believe or why is a very bad idea. I am troubled that the church is capable of generating so many bad ideas these days (see A Call to Action, etc.) and want us to get back to the basics of knowing who we are and why we exist. If we can’t come up with an answer at Christmastime, we are in big, big trouble.
Categories: Christian witness, Christmas, Core Values, Identity & Purpose
The positive side here is that the church is beginning to make a stand. Advent Conspiracy and Slaughter’s “Christmas is not your Birthday” are finding their ways into churches which, in turn, cause pastors and parishioners to reflect on what the message of Christmas actually is. These resources also challenge us to take that message into the world in ways that transcend throwing a fit when the clerk at the store says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I believe that the tide is starting to turn and that over the next few years, the church is going to make a loving statement to a culture obsessed with affluenza. The last word on Christmas has not been spoken and the church, though groggy, has not completely fallen asleep.
I attended a church on a Sunday after Christmas. We sang a few carols, prayed, then the pastor invited members of the congregation to share their favorite Christmas stories. No sermon – after all, why should the pastor have to work during the holidays? I have refused to go back. Last year he invited the congregation to wear their pajamas to church! I thought this was an exception (abberation?), but after reading your blog, I wonder.