For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
I work at a church. This means that I know a lot of Christians. In fact, despite my best intentions, it seems that most of the people I’m facebook friends with profess the Christian faith. Some of them are youth that I’ve worked with. Some of them are people I’ve gone to church with. Some of them are friends/acquaintances from school. You get the idea. The upshot is this: I get more trite, Christiany pictures and statuses popping up in my feed before 9 am than most people get in a week. Honestly, some of them I appreciate. Some are inspiring. Some are insipid. Some are just wrong, and make us all look really, really dumb. If that offends my Christian friends, I’ll borrow a page from a mom that I know and say this, just as she does when talking to all her kids at the same time: I’m telling this to all of you. If you feel that it applies to you, then take it to heart. If you feel that it doesn’t, then assume that I’m not talking to you.
Just so we’re perfectly clear, this is not on the good side of Christiany posts.
I’m going to come at this from a couple of angles: First, why you really shouldn’t ever say this or post it. Second, how it came to be, and why it’s less stupid than I make it out to be in the first part. Confused yet? Read on.
Jesus is not the reason for the season. He’s not. Take a deep breath. The athiests are right. The festive season around this time of year was around long before Jesus. It spans cultures, not in terms of people trying to steal the Christ from your Christmas, but in terms of completely unrelated religious beliefs. Why would all these other religions–the pagans, the mystics, the tribal spiritists, whatever–want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, you ask? Because it’s not. And most of you know that. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in Christendom, and one of the dumbest myths that we perpetuate to our children. Best guess, Jesus was born in September. Beyond that, even if he was born on December 25th, why would people have been celebrating that before the nativity came to pass?
I know people that have had a “house of cards” faith (refer to the earlier “mom phrase”). They’re not Christians any more. What I mean by “house of cards,” is that as they came up in the church, people fed them certainties. They were taught things, perpetuated in the church, that sounded good but had little theological or historical basis. Like Jesus’ birthday. They then went out into the “real world,” and cards started getting flicked. Things like the Christmas story were called into question as people said to them, “did you know that Christmas is actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia?” and they responded “NO! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!”
They had two choices: bury their head in the sand or find out the truth – that people celebrated this time of year because in agrarian cultures, this was downtime. We approach the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st. Lacking a good and accurate calendar, the way people knew it had come and gone was that the day started to get longer. YAY!! THE RETURN OF THE SUN! We’ve turned the corner! Spring is coming! And how easy it is to ascribe religious significance to it when you believe the seasons and all aspects of nature are governed by gods. The god of warmth and sun has triumphed again over the god of cold and night!
And what happens to those rational Christians when that card gets removed from the house? What else might be wrong? … How can I give the benefit of the doubt to the unproven, when the things I was taught were certain are OBVIOUSLY wrong? … How can a rational faith teach this?? … We would have been celebrating this season if Jesus had never been born.
And they walk away.
And I have a hard time blaming them.
I blame the sand-head-repeaters, because there is a good reason for it. Just because a teaching has gotten twisted, doesn’t mean that it didn’t start as rational.
You see, the early Christians didn’t have any illusions about this season being their idea. If they were Jewish, they grew up with Hanukkah (what Jesus would have celebrated, by the way); if they were Hellenistic gentiles, they would most likely have been lighting up bonfires against the dark, bringing in evergreen boughs against the winter, giving each other gifts (yeah. Long before St. Nick. Once again, get over it), upsetting social norms, having all sorts of sex, and watching for the victory of the Sun.
Then they decided not to celebrate those things. They thought, hey, what a perfect metaphor for the the coming of the messiah! They figured that the coming of the small new light when everything seemed the darkest was a brilliant parallel for the Light of the World coming as a baby into a spiritually dark world. They said that the rest of the world could celebrate what they wanted to, but they were going to take that time and remember that when all seems the darkest and the quietest, and it seems like the winter will never end, God is moving and is coming to save.
The season was the reason that they celebrated Jesus.
I feel that I need to be clear again: I believe that the nativity is a historical event, just not as it tends to be portrayed by Christians today. We ignore the Bible for a more picturesque, easy to tell story. Sometimes I’m kind of okay with that… there are Wise Men in our nativity creche at the same time as the shepherds*. But let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about why the story of Jesus’ birth and the events of the years surrounding it are celebrated at the Christ Mass just past winter solstice–the way the story comes together is too powerful to ignore. Let’s talk about what an awesome point of dialogue this metaphor is for relating our faith to the world! Let’s not dumb stuff down for our kids in such a way that, when they become old enough to process the metaphor, it sounds like a lie. Let’s not attack the people around us, directly or with passive-aggressive Facebook posts, for celebrating a season that we’ve co-opted for our own. They can take the Christ out of Christmas… we put it in. Without Christ, it’s just a “mass” – a feast, and they were doing that long before us.
Above all, let’s not let the trite overcome the profound. Let’s not build straw men that make our faith look ridiculous. As the world looks toward the hope of the new year, let’s be able to offer the reason for the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
*They weren’t. GASP! *house of cards falling*