Here is a sermon Barbara and I delivered at the Hudson UMC on December 4: (sorry about the formatting)
Dan Oh, man, I cannot believe it is December already! This year has just flown by.
Barbara I know, and it isn’t going to get any better. I have two projects that absolutely MUST be done by the end of the year. I do not see how I am going to get them both finished on time.
Dan Well, you do have almost four weeks.
Barbara Sure, except for this little thing called Christmas? You’ve heard of it?
Dan (defensively) I know. But life doesn’t stop just because it’s Christmas. I’ve got plenty to do, too.
Barbara It would certainly be a lot easier if we didn’t have all the distractions of Christmas to pay attention to. It’s all so overwhelming – the tree, the decorations, the cards, the gifts, the travel, the baking, the special events – and you can’t escape it. Everywhere you turn there’s more pressure to buy, spend, wrap, deliver… It’s nuts.
Dan It’s Christmas! You got to take the bad with the good.
Barbara Do we? Here’s an idea. Let’s not do Christmas this year. Let’s treat it like just another day of the year.
Dan Are you serious? You’re not serious. We can’t not do Christmas!
Barbara Why not? What would we lose? No fighting crazed shoppers, no licking, addressing and stamping a hundred Christmas cards, no hearing Frosty the Snowman and the Twelve Days of Christmas dozens of times. No running around looking for last minute gifts. No pine needles stuck to everything for months to come. The more I talk, the more I like the idea!
Dan Yeah, but what about family? What about church? What about Jesus, for crying out loud?
Barbara Oh, come on. How much of what I just said has anything whatsoever to do with Jesus?
Dan Well, okay, a lot about Christmas is crazy and out of control, but that’s not what Christmas is all about.
Barbara We say that – every year – “Jesus is the reason for the season” – but be real. Look at where we focus all our time and energy. Christmas isn’t one big hassle because of Jesus; it’s all the other junk we pile on.
Dan It’s not all junk. What about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?
Dan The puppet thing, you know, the Christmas special. I love Rudolph.
Barbara But this is the example that proves the rule. When Rudolph came out in the sixties, how many other Christmas specials were there?
Dan I don’t know – Charlie Brown? Grinch?
Barbara Nope, both those came after. But look at all the Christmas shows on TV now – and they start broadcasting them weeks before Thanksgiving!! The movies are non-stop for weeks before Christmas. It’s all too much!
Dan But we control what we watch. We don’t have to buy into the commercialization if we don’t want to.
Barbara That’s what I am saying – let’s “turn off” Christmas this year. We play by our own rules. We just pretend it isn’t happening.
Dan But I’m not comfortable with that. It feels like a “baby and bath-water” thing. I am open to throwing out some of the stuff that really doesn’t have much to do with the birth of our Savior, but I don’t want to ignore the important stuff.
Barbara Okay, so what is the important stuff to you?
Dan Well, in addition to Rudolph, I guess, there’s family, and friends. I like having a Christmas tree. I like going to church, especially on Christmas Eve. You know I love Christmas music. It’s nice to be in touch with folks, even if it is only a Christmas card.
Barbara But stop right there. You’re right back to all the craziness, and most of it has nothing to with Christ. Christmas isn’t anything like what it ought to be. (exasperated) I would just rather not do Christmas this year.
Dan Well now there, that’s the problem. Christmas isn’t something we “do,” exactly. Christmas is more than just an event that happens once each year. It’s bigger than that. There is an essence – a Spirit – it is bigger than lights and presents and cookies and songs…
Barbara (skeptically) …and Rudolph?
Dan Well, no, not Rudolph. Rudolph is actually a good example of what I am talking about. There is absolutely nothing in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that is about Jesus Christ; EXCEPT, it is about relationships, it is about forgiveness, it is about loyalty, it is about kindness and joy. Rudolph exists because the Spirit and essence of Christmas is
there. Without Christmas? No Rudolph.
Barbara I cannot believe I am talking to an adult!
Dan I am okay with that. That’s another part of Christmas you are over-looking. Christmas allows us all to be child-like again. So many of the trappings and hassles you are talking about we do for our kids. And we like these things, too, because there is a bit of the kid in all of us.
Barbara But not everybody feels joy at Christmas. Not everyone has the luxury of being in touch with their “inner child.” Christmas allows us to ignore all the problems in the world. We stuff ourselves with cookies while people starve. We cozy up before a blazing fire while people are scraping by living on the streets. We listen to Mahalia Jackson
sing “Joy to the World,” while millions live lives of quiet desperation. Christmas should bring out the best in us, not make us even more deaf and blind to the real world than we already are.
Dan Whoa, that’s cheerful. For me, everything you said just reinforces how badly we NEED Christmas. Our world is broken and people are sick and dying, homeless and hungry, scared and alone. I would say we really need a Savior. Today, more than ever, a Messiah seems like a really good idea. It is up to us to decide whether we will ignore all the problems or not.
Barbara Now I’m depressed AND overwhelmed. I just feel sometimes that Christmas makes us LESS Christian instead of more. So many cultural messages around Christmas glorify greed and selfishness and consumption and gluttony. It’s all spend, spend, spend, buy, buy, buy, eat, drink, be merry, and forget all the unpleasant stuff. This isn’t the way it should be.
Dan But, it is the way things are. We can’t change how things are, but we can decide how we want to celebrate Christmas. We are in Advent now, supposedly a time of preparation and anticipation. You are pretty clear on the kind of Christmas you DON’T want. But what kind of Christmas WOULD you like?
Barbara You know? I’m not sure. It isn’t that I don’t like the lights and decorations and presents and family. It just feels like everything gets buried under the pressure to make everything bigger, and brighter, and better. I think what I want is a simple Christmas.
Dan And what would a simple Christmas be like for you?
Barbara Okay, first off, spend less money. Let’s value being together more and value all the “stuff” less. Let’s give church the priority – I would like to experience the whole of Advent before Christmas comes crashing down on us. And let’s do something for other people, take what we would have spent on gadgets and gew-gaws and give it to Heifer Project or a Haitian relief fund. Let’s email our close friends and tell them how much they mean to us, and not race to get all our cards signed, sealed, and delivered before the 25th.
Dan That all sounds do-able. Anything else?
Barbara I think so, but I’m not exactly sure how to say it. It feels as if Christ is missing from Christmas. It doesn’t feel like a “religious holiday” anymore – the spirituality is sucked right out of it. The scriptures at church today talk about a “peaceable kingdom” – where peace, and kindness dominate and people treat each other with love, not judgment. I want Christmas to be about that.
Dan Won’t going to church help with that?
Barbara It will help, but even church feels a little busy and frantic during Advent and Christmas. Something is lost in doing the same things over and over every year. I mean, I love the Cantata and the Children’s Service and candlelight Christmas Eve service, but because I know them so well, familiarity sometimes breeds contempt. I’m looking for
something that will help make Christmas new again. I feel an urge to “repent” of Christmas, ala John the Baptist.
Dan Well, that shouldn’t difficult.
I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
Barbara I’m talking about you and me making a deal to be intentional this Christmas. We will set aside time to talk every day. We will get a couple of books about what the world was like when Jesus was born maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, God is in the Manger, or Richard Rohr’s, Preparing for Christmas. We will each read a book and take time to share what we are learning with each other. We will help each other remember what Christmas really is and why Christmas is really important. We will take time, every day of Advent between now and Christmas, to pray together – asking God to reveal the truth of Christmas to us and to thank God for all the blessings we have every day of the year.
Dan Wow, okay. That will be different. We can set up Mom’s old Nativity set as an altar, and add the animals and characters as we get closer to time. This could be fun. I know the sanitized Christmas story, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really contemplated it deeply. I mean, I know that Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that talk about
Jesus’ birth, and that they are two very different stories…
Barbara That we have conflated into one epic, with all kinds of additions and expansions
Dan —with all kinds of Kings and Drummer Boys and talking donkeys… right, right, but it would be nice to KNOW where all these things came from. I think you may be onto something. This could really help make Christmas more significant again.
Barbara I think Christmas has always been significant. I think we have lost sight of what makes Christmas Christmas.
Dan Okay, but what about family and friends? What about presents?
Barbara Let’s explain what we’re doing and why. Let’s find out what they care most about and we can make donations in their names. We can get something small for the kids – they may not understand what we’re doing, and I do so like being their favorite aunt…
Dan But the basic rule is simplify and focus.
Barbara Right. Think about how weird it is to make the Son of God’s birthday all about US! I can’t imagine we’re pleasing God by celebrating the Messiah’s birthday by going into soul-crushing debt and stuffing ourselves until we’re in pain.
Dan Christmas really isn’t a finish line we race to, it should be a new beginning filled with all kinds of possibilities to be better. How many people lament that the spirit of Christmas seems to magically disappear with all the wrapping paper
and discarded trees, and we simply go back to being the same old people we were before. What does it mean when Christmas – the birth of the Son of God – makes so little impact?
Barbara And it just doesn’t have to be this way. I am all for celebrating. I am all for making Christmas one of the biggest parties of the year. I simply want Christmas to be more than an excuse for excess. And I want to rediscover the joy and wonder I felt when I was young.
Dan I don’t think this is impossible. It may take us a few Christmases to get it where we want it, but I’m all for it.
Barbara It won’t be easy – the whole world is stacked against us. Every TV station, radio station, web-site, newspaper and magazine is tempting us to buy more stuff, give more stuff, spend more money, and even do a little something nice for ourselves. It is insane!
Dan We need a Savior to save Christmas from what we’ve done to it!