Monday, November 26, 2012

What to do about Christmas?



                         "A Grinch, A Witch, and the Liberation of Christmas                                     (Luke 1:26-38)

I hold in my hands the essential tools for liberating Christmas from its captivity to North American capitalistic, consumeristic culture. The Dr. Seuss tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas; C. S. Lewis's Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the “Christian Seasons Calendar”; and the Bible.

In U. S. News & World Report a few years ago, Jeffrey Sheler surveyed what he called "the battle for Christmas." His thesis was: from the time when Christians began celebrating Christ's birth (which surprisingly seems not to be until the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire), from that beginning the celebration of Christ's birth was locked in a desperate struggle to “christianize" the midwinter Roman festivals of Saturnalia and various other pagan sun deities. The fascinating history Sheler recounts alerts us to the danger of nostalgia in our present skirmishes over this contested season. There never was a time, it seems (Norman Rockwell notwithstanding!), that Christmas enjoyed a pure, unsullied status, free of the taint of commercialism and excess - a time from whose heights we fell and to which we must return. No, the reality is that we are still groping towards a clearer understanding and proper celebration of the birth of the Savior. If we are going to get free of the dreadfulness of Christmas present it will not be through revisiting Christmas past but rather by boldly pushing ahead into Christmas future.

And that's what I want to do this morning - to envision what Christmas future might be and what kind of people we must become to live out that vision.

We’ll start by getting a fix on how this “battle for Christmas” is going.  And the simple answer is that it is going very poorly.  As historian Stephen Nissenbaum says, Christmas “has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

A comparison of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe helps us understand at of the reason why.  You remember the “Grinch” story?  An inexplicably hard-hearted Grinch decides one Christmas Eve to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville.  He pilfers the stockings, the presents, the ornaments, the trees, the food left for Santa, and even the Yuletide logs from their fireplaces. He waits on the hillside above Whoville, savoring the weeping and wailing he feels sure is to come when the Whovillians awake. However, much to the Grinch's consternation and perplexity, he hears only joyous singing and merriment from the bottom of the hill.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so? "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"  And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, doesn't come from a store. "Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!"

That's a nice story ... but it bears no relation to the reality of Christmas as we know it. For the reality of Christmas in North America is this: it is a commercially-generated, commercially-maintained holiday. Hear Jeffery Sheler again, summarizing the views of several historians of the practice of Christmas:

What many historians find most fascinating about. . . Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned ... (it) in the first place.  The "commercial forms" associated with Christmas and other holidays ... "have become integral to their survival." The consumer culture "shapes our holidays ... by taking in diverse, local traditions and creating relatively common ones." To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now might cheer those who want to "take back Christmas . . ." But such an observance "would lack the cultural resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace." If Christmas came to that . . . "we probably wouldn't keep it as a society."

What's more, Christmas as we know it is no longer a religious holiday - even among the religious! A survey recently done for Lutheran Hour Ministries makes this clear. Only 37% of those who identified themselves as Christians said Jesus' birth is the most important thing about Christmas. Among Fundamentalists, no less, only 32% gave that answer! In all categories family time was easily the top answer to what is most important about Christmas.

Businesses know it too. In Pittsburgh, local merchants object to calling this time "the Christmas Season" because that excludes those of non-Christian faiths or of no faith. And of course, there's no reason anyone should be left out because Christmas is a "holiday" not a "holy day." Thus these merchants prefer the more politically correct designation "Sparkle Season."

And that's Christmas present in our country. It consists of time off from work, time with family, and, of course, buying and eating, buying and eating, buying and eating. Dr. Seuss's naive faith that it can be otherwise is simply wrong. It may be painful or unpleasant to acknowledge this, but acknowledge it we must if we want to find our way to Christmas future.

C. S. Lewis tells a different tale. His imaginary country of Narnia is ruled by the White Witch. And she rules with an iron fist. She has cast a spell over Narnia to the effect that it is always winter there but never Christmas.  Imagine that!  When she meets up with a human visitor, Edmund, the witch seduces him by feeding him her enchanted Turkish Delight. This wonderfully tasty confection snares Edmund, leaving him always wanting more but never being satisfied. His desire leads him to further and greater evil. Edmund is trapped, completely unable to free himself from the Witch and her Turkish Delight. He, along with all of Narnia, needs to be liberated from the Witch to escape winter and find true Christmas.

Yes, Lewis tells a different - and better! - tale. Using his images we can say that what we experience as Christmas is really a big mid-winter party animated by copious amounts of Turkish delight. That's why Christmas comes and goes each year leaving us with lots of bills, lots of calories, and lots of fatigue, but precious little meaning and satisfaction. Christmas-as-we-know-it does indeed need to be liberated from its bondage to winter and we from our bondage to Turkish Delight.

Friends, we need to hear Gabriel's announcement to Mary again - God is with you, you have found divine favor, God's Son will live in and through you, the Holy Spirit will empower you, nothing is impossible with God. These promises made to her are also promises made to us. They ring with the kind of liberation that just might fire our vision for Christmas future and evoke our courage to move toward it.

Andrew Purves, Professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has caught such a vision and found such courage. In a Presbyterian Outlook article he declares: "I doubt that Christ can be put back into Christmas. It is naive to think we can deconsumerize or unsentimentalize this festival. Rather than Christ transforming culture, the culture has transformed Christ, or has at least transformed Christmas." That's why it is critical for us to try and discern the way things are (as I did earlier in this sermon) so we no longer waste time and energy trying to save what Purves (and I with him) calls "a lost cause." Instead we need to mobilize our energies and insights for Christmas future.

Images of liberation and of a journey toward Christmas future can scarcely fail to remind us of Exodus. And I want to draw on one part of the Exodus story to help us flesh out a new vision for Christmas. Remember how Yahweh told Moses to have the people take anything they needed from the Egyptians as they left the country? I think we need to do something similar with Christmas present.

I've already said that Christmas-as-we-know-it is a lost cause for Christian celebration and worship. But that doesn't mean there is nothing worthwhile for us to take advantage of even as we give up on the religious value of the festival. In fact giving up on that frees us to experience the benefits "Sparkle Season" does offer. I mean, time off from work, family gatherings, and a modest sharing of gifts (including a sharing of our resources and time with the poor and needy) are good and worthy things. We would be foolish to reject or despise them. And that's the contemporary equivalent of plundering the Egyptians. We're not going to buy into the excesses and absurdities of the festival nor will we seek our spiritual nurture and sustenance there any longer. But we will enjoy the gifts there to be had. As Andrew Purves puts it:

“I will stop being a religious spoil-sport who moodily and self-righteously tries to reclaim the 25th of December as a narrow Christian holy day, acknowledging instead that it is now a religiously neutral and near universally celebrated holiday.  Almost totally non-Christian Japan celebrates Christmas as a mid-winter celebration of fun and gifts, and the warmth of family and friends. No Christ of course, but a break in the winter gloom. For what it's worth, . .. next year, guilt free, I will celebrate Sparkle Season and have a happy holiday with little religious agenda.”

Me too! What about you?

How then do we genuinely celebrate Christ's birth? What will such a celebration look like? And when will it be?

The answer to that lies in the church's calendar. It is yet another mark of how thoroughly Christmas has been co-opted by commercial and other interests that few Christians are aware that December 25th is the beginning and not the end of Christmas and that Christmas goes on for twelve days until January 5, the day before Epiphany.   Recovering the church's calendar and its sense and rhythm of time is vital to the liberation of Christmas.

I suggest, then, that our Christian celebration of the birth of Christ begin on December 25th after the morning rituals you and your families go through for the opening of presents. At some point on Christmas day intentionally focus your or your family's attention on the birth of Christ and that celebrating his birth will take 12 days. Set aside time each day for appropriate reflection and response to God's wondrous gift of his Son. Leave your tree and decorations up until Epiphany. Establish a tradition of having a family or church Epiphany party to mark the end of Christmas by un-decorating your homes and churches. Use the Daily Lectionary's selection of biblical texts to read and reflect on through the twelve days of Christmas. There are as many ways to creatively use this gift of twelve days to celebrate Christmas as we can imagine.

The importance of recovering this segment of the church's calendar though, exceeds simply finding another more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas. In a larger sense, if we learn to live the church's calendar in this one season, we may find ourselves willing to explore and experiment with other seasons of the church year. Perhaps we might even imagine a future where as individuals and as God's people our lives are shaped and governed more decisively by this calendar than by the civil, or the school, or the sports calendar. And what's at stake here is identity - who we are - and integrity - how we are to be in the world. You see, integrity flows out of identity. So if we don't know or don't care about who we are in Christ as God's people, then our attitudes and behaviors will be likewise confused and confusing testimony to God's light and love. Living the church's calendar offers a vital and exciting way for us to into in the image and share more deeply in the mission of Jesus Christ.

I want to issue a call this morning: a call for any and all of you to covenant to meet with me throughout the coming year to develop ideas and activities for individuals and families to use during the twelve days of Christmas. If you sense God calling you to leave Christmas present and journey toward Christmas future, I invite you to journey with me. It's an unfamiliar and difficult journey, so let's do it together.

"Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." So it has been said before. May it please God that we say it again today!  Amen.

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