Saturday, December 28, 2013

Reflections for the 12 Days: Christmas as Problem

“The Holidays,” and most especially Christmas, pose a problem to a great number of people. The reasons are varied: memory of lost loved ones, the scars of unhappy family Christmases past, and, perhaps most widespread, the vaguer sense of never being able to get with the alleged and elusive “spirit” of the season.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t belong to the “bah, humbug” crowd. I really love Christmas. But it’s simply true that Christmas always threatens to disappoint.

How could it not, granted the excessive hype of the cultural celebration? Mothers trying to create the “perfect” Christmas for their children; husbands looking for the gift for their wives that will unlock that special smile from the heart; children expecting that every Christmas will be even better than the last; the perils of family gatherings.

And so, “Blue Christmas” services have sprung up like mini-oases in the bleak mid-winter for those afraid of too much exposure to songs celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.” 

Challenges of the Messianic Promise

The problem goes deeper than the Santa-expectations and the tenuous “magic” of the holidays straight into the heart of the Christian story of Jesus’ birth. After all, he was “born to save us from our sins” and sin still abounds mightily. The angel told Mary that he would “sit on the throne of his father David and rule over the house of Israel forever,” which he may well do in heaven, but on the plane of earthly history his life ended on a Roman cross. ‘

The early community's faith, expressed in the Christmas story, was faced the first and second generations with the problem of unfulfilled promise. Where is the promise of his coming?*  they asked—that Coming that would fulfill the promises of the angels, the promises the original disciples had imagined would be fulfilled in Jesus’ own earthly triumph over sin and injustice. As the carol says of the angel’s song: 

   But with the woes of sin and strife/ The world has suffered long;
   Beneath the angel-song have rolled/ Two thousand years of wrong**

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer. I really love the Christmas stories. But a proclamation of these stories, and of the gospel itself, in forms too cheerfully magical can lead people to great disappointment. Yes, “Jesus saves,” but miraculous transformations are few and far between. Yes, Jesus is “Lord of all the earth” in the upbeat hymn, but millions of Syrian refugees shiver in the cold this Christmas, and people in the Central African Republic die in droves violently every day.

Whatever else it is, neither the gospel nor the Way of Jesus are a panacea for the world Jesus came to save. If we take the Proclamation of the Angels seriously, we must admit that Christmas is not only promise and problem, but also paradox.

Next: Christmas as Paradox
*   2 Peter 3:4
** "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"by The Rev. Edmund Sears, 1849

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Reflections for the Twelve Days of Christmas: First Day

First Day: Christmas as Promise

One of my godson’s kids wrote Santa with a confession and a hope: even though she had been somewhat naughty this year (her younger brother’s fault, entirely), she very much wanted the list of toys attached. Her tone was one of confident trust that Santa would understand her frank confession and fulfill his promise of largesse to children who are Nice. 

Macy’s big holiday advertising campaign centers on “a million reasons to believe.”  Believe in what? Any or all of the following: Savior, Santa, peace, goodwill, the Christmas (or Holiday) spirit. Believe in the manifold promises of the season. 
Christmas, even in its secular “Holiday” forms, is all about promises. The promise of a Savior. The promise that St. Nick, Kinderklaus, Santa will come through again to grant wishes.  The promise of “peace, good will toward men.” The promise that if we’re really in the right mood we can tune in to the “spirit” of the season.

Two Ancient Promises

Fair enough, to give the Season its due, for this mood of believing in promises is rooted in two ancient promises. First, the pledge of a Savior “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins . . . and his kingdom will have no end” which gave birth to the Christian celebration. Second, the even older Solstice promise, in the dark of the year, of the return of light and warmth as the days lengthen, which gave birth to the European Winterfest (Solstice, Yule, Saturnalia) in which Christmas itself is nested.

My mother declined to make any absolute promises to us as children, unlike her mother-in-law who promised much and fulfilled, well, some. In reality, our lives do slowly accumulate unfilled promises, small and great. More and more the intensity of the Holiday Season as well as Christmas for Christians seems to me to arise out of our yearning for the fulfillment of promises in the midst of a world where so many of them are either broken or turn out to be ephemeral.

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”  We yearn.
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild.”  We hope.
“When....shall come the age of gold.”  We want so much to believe.

Santa often comes through for kids, so the promise often works. Believing the Yuletide promise also comes easily, so long as there is food and fuel enough to make it alive until the earth springs green again. The promise of Savior and Peaceable Kingdom are a bigger stretch, granted the state of the world and the human soul. Yet the message of the angels is not just a promise, but a challenge: believe. 

On this the fate of the world may well depend.   

Next: Christmas as Problem