I tend to get overly melancholic around Christmas-time (it doesn’t take much), but no more so than when I consider the tendency of the Church (and I’m including myself here) to do all we can to make sure Christmas gets in the way of Christmas. Allow me a few questions to those of us in the Body of Christ who should know better.
First off, have all the Christmas parties, White Elephant gift exchanges, brunches, lunches, dinners, desserts, children’s programs, cookie exchanges, decorating days, and trips to the mall provided the same degree of meaning proportional to the labor involved? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “probably not,” but I’ll let you come up with your own set of rationalizations as to why it makes sense to do them year after year anyway.
Secondly, has the amount of time, money, and energy spent shopping for over-priced, poorly made, dumbly advertised, and rarely satisfying toys for kids and adults alike accurately communicated our intention to imitate God’s giving of his Son? Again, I’d be willing to venture that the desire to “find the perfect gift” was possibly more informed by an “I’ve got to get something for” obligation rather than “For God so loved the world,” but you’ll have to decide the extent to which that’s true.
In the meantime, consider this from the bi-weekly email I received today from Terry Mattingly at Scripps Howard News Service:
As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination — a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.
The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life 2” reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.
Then, entering from stage right, came “an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards,” writes Stuever, in Tinsel, his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace. “Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ ending on a long, noisy note: ‘newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.’
“Then they freeze.
“Hold it for applause.”
The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.
“I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church,” said Stuever. “I wrote, ‘It’s Picasso…I just couldn’t believe it.”
The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole…Thus, Tinsel seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient — and more significant today — than the rites of praying and believing.
For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that’s fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the “total moments” of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.
“It’s so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, ‘Oh, those poor, stupid people,’ ” he said. “But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. It’s a religious experience for them, even though it couldn’t be more secular. They’re out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas.”
Hey, Church, have we found it yet? Has the warm and fuzzy glow of the tree lights – combined with our ever-expanding waistlines from the egg nog, Christmas cookies, and Chex Mix – finally brought us to such an enlightened experience of Jesus’ birth that we all pretend to long for every year? Have we got our holiday Picasso on? Is it the North Pole or Bethlehem for us? Oh, but why choose when we can have it all!?
Are we doing our best to make sure Christmas gets in the way of Christmas, or do we still have enough of a conscience left to at least pause before we slide down Santa’s slippery slope of crass commercialism? (Of course, if we were to resist just one year, it would completely crash our economy, which has become absolutely dependent on our holiday attempts at buying meaning, so never mind because, well, it’s the economy, stupid.)
Is it too late for us, Church? Can we really be counter-culturally different? Could we at least see our need to try, believing – yea, perhaps even living like – trying really matters? After all, the incarnation of word and flesh is the true miracle of Christmas…now imagine if it were actually true in us.
For what it’s worth (and as genuinely as I can muster saying it), Merry Christmas. Now let the Scrooge comments begin (Dickens is, after all, a favorite holiday tradition)…