My last several posts have been about my own personal story, and how God has been at work in my life, but I thought I’d take a break from that and address a very serious concern. Something has been weighing on me for the last several days. Honestly, it’s kept me up nights!
Maybe it’s been on your mind too. Maybe it’s been bothering you like it’s been bothering me.
So better to get it all out in the open.
Ok. So here we go. Brace yourself.
Apparently, Christmas is coming.
Judging by the calendar, it’s just over a month away. If you include the season of Advent, then it’s only 10 days away.
Already, there are people in our neighborhood with their Christmas trees up and lights strung up inside and outside their homes.
Sadly, most years I’ve never really managed to get up outside lights. My indoor lights, admittedly, are less than professionally hung. Duct tape is involved. Last year it was black duct tape.
Oh, and my kids love me for this.
But, seriously, doesn’t it seem like more and more people are putting up their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier?
I mean, I’m a Christian and I still don’t get it. So I confess that it all makes me feel inadequate and like kind of a Scrooge. Or like the Grinch.
I think maybe I feel this way because so much of Christmas has been hijacked and coopted by our culture’s consumerism. How many of the people who have already put up their decorations for a holiday more than a month away actually reflect on, much less believe in, the real meaning of Christmas?
Sure, we could say that early-decorators are merely making sure they’re ready before Advent begins, but that assumes they observe Advent. Or perhaps they do, because even Advent has been coopted by commercialized and de-Christianized versions of the Advent calendar. You can now celebrate Advent without acknowleding Jesus thanks to Lindor, Hershey, and other candy companies!
See what I mean about being a Grinch and a Scrooge? Don’t I sound like someone you want around for the holidays?
Of course, we can talk about the over-commercialization of Christmas and how it’s become more about materialism and over-indulgence ad nauseum. It’s not an original complaint. But in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian I often find decorations, lights, and Christmas trees to be more and more hollow. As expressions of a holiday (which comes from “holy day”), they don’t point to anything deeper. They merely signal a change in our calendars and the time kids have off from school. It’s all surface and no substance. Lights are just lights unless we see Christ as the light of the world.
Rather than remind me of what we have gained with the coming of Jesus into the world, the outward trappings of Christmas instead remind me what we’ve lost when we forget that he ought to be at the center.
I’ve actually wondered if we’ll ever get to a point in our culture when even the outward trappings of Christmas–the lights and decorations and the gift giving–will slip away into the mists of history.
The truth is, I don’t think that would bother me.
You see, when an occasion that is meant to remind us of our need for a Messiah and God’s gracious act in sending One is wrapped in pretty paper and bows, there is a part of me that desperately longs for the scandalous and unique message of the Scriptures. When people treat the holy day meant to acknowlege and honor the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity by having inflatable Santas and assorted cartoon characters on their lawns, something inside me wants nothing to do with the way most celebrate it.
It’s almost enough to make me, as a believer, wish I could change the date of the Christian celebration of the incarnation. Let everyone else have their holiday lights, trees, and decorations that these days serve to obscure the gospel message and give me Jesus, the Son of God come in the flesh for the salvation of the world.
It’s frustrating to have the most important message in all of history–the coming of God into the world as one of us–set alongside and mixed up with all of the cultural trappings and messaging endemic to Hallmark Christmas movies. For the sake of retaining something of meaning while ignoring or watering down the biblical story, we’ve made Christmas lifeless and listless, empty of power. Or worse, dependent on human power and devoid of divine presence.
One of the Christmas DVDs we watch (or I watch) every year is the original Charlie Brown Christmas special. You probably know it well. One of the wonderful facts about this special is that the TV network, upon reviewing the initial script for the story, wanted Charles Schulz (the creator of Peanuts) to take out the scene where Linus quotes from The Gospel of Luke’s infancy narrative. No doubt the scene that turns the special from good to great, Schulz refused. He apparently told them that if that scene goes, so does the whole special. He insisted on keeping the scene in. And let’s face it, without that scene, would we even remember that special today?
I think those of us who are Christians need to practice Christmas as an act of cultural resistance. I think we need to resist the pressures that come along with this season that threaten, should they have their way with us, to squeeze the life and joy and meaning out of it. I think we need to resist the anxiety we feel when we’re worried we won’t be able to buy all the things we’d like to buy or do all the things we think we’re supposed to do.
Don’t worry, I’m preaching to myself too.
All this is why I do observe Advent. Advent is resistance, because it has the power to ground Christmas in healthy, firm gospel soil. Advent gives Christmas strong roots that are deep and that can provide us with spiritual perspective. It gives us a chance to slow down when everyone and everything else wants to hurry up. It focuses us when we get distracted by cultural noise. It reminds us that, whatever else happens, God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
So whatever you make of the early-decorators, or all of the visible signs that Christmas is coming, my advice is to resist the pressure (and perhaps even the desire) to focus on the surface stuff all around you. Instead, pay attention–much more attention–to the God who in the person of Jesus chose to come to you.