Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some Thoughts at Christmas

As tomorrow is Christmas, I thought a Christmas posting would be in order. First of all, let me wish you a very merry Christmas. Second, let me write a bit about Christmas, specifically what I like about Christmas and the parts that leave me disappointed. Let me premise the second part by admitting that I still see Christmas from two different viewpoints. There is the view from the first 27 years of my life when I wasn’t a Christian and the view from the last 10 years I have spent as a Christian. During both phases of my life, I celebrated Christmas. What is most interesting to me now is that I see how we, as Christians, celebrate in both religious and secular ways, I think it just might be easier for me to see which is which. I just look at the stuff I added after my baptism. I want to be clear that the secular stuff is not inherently bad. In fact, some of the parts of Christmas that have nothing to do with religion are the best parts.

Here is what I like best about Christmas: First, it inspires hope and charity. Whether you attend church or not this time of celebration inspires a sense of hope that despite the realities of the world that surrounds us: climate change, economic turmoil, massive worldwide poverty and disease, etc. etc. etc. that everything might just be okay. That is imbedded in the Christian message of Christmas, that in the incarnation, God, in Jesus comes into the broken world to give us hope. But even for those who don’t know about Jesus, the Christmas lights that shimmer in the darkness, the parties that add joy to our sometimes joyless workplaces, the excitement and the anticipation speak a word of hope.

And for Christians, non-Christians and everyone in between a spirit of charity fills the air. As I was reading the news online this morning I noticed that the typical banner ads that say “Buy! Buy! Buy!” have been replaced with ads that say “Give! Give! Give!” They are there because charities and foundations know that people are more likely to give right now. Many of them don’t even know why, it I just something in the air. For Christians, it is imbedded in the message of Christmas. God, out of a sheer gift of love, sent his Son Jesus Christ to be with us, to love us, to save us. We believe that God’s love for us is a sheer gift that cannot be earned by anything we can do. We try to respond to that gift at Christmas by doing our best to imitate the outrageous generosity of God. We always come up short, but we try. At Christmas, even for those who don’t know the reason, this outpouring of giving is contagious, from people dropping money in the Salvation Army bucket, to buying an extravagant gift for a loved one, or writing a big check to a charity for the first time, this spirit of unconditional love and charity fills the air.

Here is something else I like about Christmas: Paired with the coming of the new year, it drives us to reflect and dream. This is the time of year of “year end issues” of magazines and television shows. As a people, we look back at what we are proud of and what we are ashamed of. That corporate reflection leads us to do the same in our personal lives. We look at how we spent our time and money, friends we have gained and lost, precious memories and painful heartbreaks. And then, we promise ourselves we will do better. We make resolutions and promises or just make an effort to try better. As Christians, we think about this as sanctification. We know that we are not all we should be and we believe that Jesus shows us that God loves us just the same. But we also believe that God wants more for us, that God wants us to learn and grow and become better. God wants us to live better and love better. So, at Christmas, we spend a little time trying to imitate God’s love and then commit to do better in the future.

There is much more I love about Christmas, but let me point out a couple of things that still leave me wanting. First, despite our best efforts, Christmas leaves people out. This is true inside the church and out. Despite our best efforts, and I do believe we make efforts (For instance Pastor Charles Anderson’s sermon last Sunday - I will post a link here when the podcast is available.) people believe that Christmas is about joy and so if you are hurting there is no room for you. On television, in the movies, everywhere you look, Christmas is smiling faces, big happy families and brand new Lexus sedans with giant ribbons. Those who aren’t up to smiling, don’t have family and can’t afford any presents, can feel excluded and that is really unfortunate. Christmas is about the coming of Jesus Christ who clearly came to bring good news to those who seem to be the most excluded. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and bind up the broken hearted. Yes, Christmas is about joy, but it is much deeper than that, it is about hope, even when there is no joy to be found.

The second thing about Christmas that leaves me wanting is this: it ends. This is not me being sentimental, it is something more theological. There is something very odd about celebrating the fact that the creator of the universe came, in the form of a human baby, to live with us and save us from ourselves and that we celebrate that fact with lights and trees and presents and cookies and parties and then, one week later, we take down the lights, put the tree at the curb, return the gifts we don’t want, throw away the stale cookies, clean up the mess from the parties and get on with our lives as if it was all over. While for Christians, the hope remains, the attitude often changes. For the rest of the world, the entire spirit of hope, charity and the attitude of reflection and spirit of dreaming can get put in a box and stored in the attic until next year. And that is just too bad.

Don’t get me wrong, it is good to spend some specific time each year intentionally reflecting on the incarnation, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but I am always left a little disappointed that this time doesn’t change us more, that it doesn’t change me more and that we will all have to wait another year to truly experience the gift that has been given.

Merry Christmas!


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