Category Archives: christmas

Letter 57: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which marks the beginning of the Church’s celebration of Christmas. Of course, outside of church, the Christmas season started over a month ago, before Halloween. So this seems to me to be a good time to ponder how one might celebrate the coming of the Christ Child.
If you feel a certain disconnect between the usual festivities and a sense of religious observance or devotion, you’re not alone. This is a very old problem. Every year since 1965, Charlie Brown has bemoaned the empty feeling the flurry of festivities brings on. In 1953, singer Red Foley was urging listeners to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” My Puritan ancestors believed that the Christmas festivities were nothing more than popish superstitions, and dispensed with the holiday completely.
The problem stems, I think from Christmas’s origins. I do not mean the actual Incarnation and Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Today, it’s not very clear what the earliest Christians thought about commemorating this event. Christmas as we know it today starts with the Emperor Constantine. Attributing his successful pretensions to the throne of Rome to God’s favor, Constantine became a Christian, and decided that everyone else should to, by naming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This obviously caused some significant dislocation for many people, who may not have given much thought to paganism, but dutifully went through with the established patterns of religious observance. If nothing else some of the old celebrations were fun, often involving feasting and drink and sex.
One of the largest celebrations was the Saturnalia, six days of eating, drinking and partying, in celebration of freedom. It was timed around the winter solstice, which would be the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and thanks to the comparatively colder temperatures, a time when fresh food too longer to spoil. Since there was little agricultural work to be done this time of year, it was a good time for a real celebration. By government order all schools and businesses were shut during the six days of the festival.
This was heady stuff, much loved by people of all stations. And now they would be asked to give this up.
It was thought best to “Christianize” Saturnalia, by drawing out some of its more universal aspects, and now tying them to Christ. Nearly all peoples had a celebration at the winter’s solstice, celebrating the return of light to the world. Jesus declared Himself “The Light of the World,” and so it became a straightforward matter to name this time the celebration of His coming to earth. The gift-giving now echoed the Magi, and the sense of equality and fun was now grounded in our identity and freedom in Christ.
And so the party continued, but now with a tension.
We like giving gifts, mostly because we like getting gifts. As a child, I timed my desires around the twin poles of Christmas and my birthday. Thankfully, they were sufficiently spaced out to make this possible. I loved the food of Christmas, too, the candy and cookies, the departure from the usual fare.
But when I think about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating, I find a disconnect, particularly when I read many of the familiar Bible passages. Indeed, if I were to summarize what the Bible has to say about Advent and Christmas, it would be this: “The King is coming, Get ready!”
“For just as the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark. And they did not know anything until the deluge came and swept them all away. So also the coming of the Son of Man will be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know what day your Lord is coming!” Matthew 24:37-42 (LEB)
So I think it is helpful to separate what we might term “secular” Christmas celebrations from “religious” or devotional observances. Gift-giving, decorations, cookies, and parties are all fine, but they do nothing to prepare us for the coming of the King. It is also helpful to realize that not everyone is going to agree with that secular-religious distinction. We have gotten far too bothered about how other people celebrate, or do not celebrate, Christmas. If we are serious about following Jesus, we would do better, by far, to ask how he wants us to prepare for His coming.
So, over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time thinking about this. How do we get ready?

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Letter 52: Christmas Is Scary

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
    foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
    they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
    and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
    instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
    they shall have everlasting joy.

Isaiah 61:1-7 (ESV)

This was amongst the readings this year in our Advent devotional.  I’ve read it many times before, as part of our Christmas preparations.  This year, a phrase from verse two burst from the page.  In all my years of hearing or reading this passage, I had never seen it before: to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.

This is not an aspect of the Christmas story I’m used to hearing.  It is hard, after all, picturing the traditional image of the Infant in the manger with the vengeance of God.  But it is there.  In fact, as we continued with our readings, I kept finding that undercurrent of danger popping up.  Do we know what we are proclaiming?

The one response that seems to have gripped everyone that first Christmas is fear.  No one comes away unscathed.

The Old Testament prophets looked upon the coming of a Messiah with hope, but also an acute awareness that God’s people had all to often blown it.  Messiah is an answer to prayer, as well as a rebuke.

Zechariah is struck dumb, which created no small problem for him as a priest.  (Luke 1:18-22)  Priests after all, were to represent the people before God, which required speaking words.  He could no longer serve, until he affirmed the instructions God had given him.  Mary, too, is troubled.  The world did not take kindly to unwed mothers, and she would have to endure the rigors of her pregnancy largely alone.  Her body is literally taken over by God, swelling day by day.  (Luke 1:29)

Joseph alone seems to have borne the news with something like equanimity, but of course the risks were pretty obvious.  He’s told to marry a woman suspiciously pregnant, and assume parentage over a child of dodgy origins, sacrificing his dreams and business for promise, one he will never see fulfilled.

The angels are terrifying.  Our romantic Victorian imagery doesn’t do them justice.  Why are they so scary?  What are we trying to hide with our iconography?

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) riffs on these theme, and reveals why Christmas is so scary.  God regards the poor and humble, and remembers his covenant with Israel. He scatters, He tears down, and lifts up, echoing Isaiah 40:4.  What is this describing but an earthquake?  The hungry are filled, but the well-to-do are sent away empty.  What if we are deemed rich?

That is the scary thing.  We do not know, and the coming Messiah promises to expose all things (Luke 2:35).  Paul speaks of God as a fire that will burn through our lives and deeds, stripping away the chaff with which we surround ourselves, laying bare our essence.

Traditionally, Advent was time for the Church to look ahead to the Second Coming, having just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, even as it was looking back toward Christ’s First Coming.  I think they caught that sense of danger in his Coming, that God is out to judge both his friends and our enemies, even as He brings peace, hope and healing.  May we recover something of that this holiday season.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!

  • Charles Wesley

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Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Letter 28: Of Dead Christmas Trees, Charlie Brown

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Today in the office’s annual holiday luncheon, which seems as good a point as any to reflect on the Christmas season just ended.  There are still some forlorn decorations and goods for sale in the clearance rack at various retailers, testimony to dashed hopes and extravagant dreams.

As I’ve gotten older, Christmas has receded as a holiday.  As a child, of course, Christmas is the major holiday of the year.  It forms a colossal combination of birthday, Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving in one month-long package.  It served as an open invitation to dream, greedily, of what to request of Santa.  There was much excitement Christmas morning as the wrapping paper was carefully cut open, folded, and put aside, so we could tear into the contents.  It was indeed a magical time.

But now, I’m not sure what to do with Christmas.  It brings on an overburdened schedule, as every organization on earth seeks to hold an event to celebrate, which “demands” my attention.  Concerts, plays, special services, parties, family gatherings, and still more parties.  Then there are cookies to bake and cards to send.  And of course, there are the decorations, inside and out.  Were Christ to come again at this time, I think we would miss Him entirely, so great is our busyness.

What has any of this to do with Christ’s coming into the world?  I round out this season feeling empty and uneasy.  I can well relate to Charlie Brown.  Lucy suggests that we need involvement, to give us that Christmas spirit, but it doesn’t work.  I just feel more empty, and tired to boot.

What should I be feeling at Christmas?  Joy?  Peace?  Hope?  Love?  Re-reading the Christmas stories in the Bible, I see wonder and anxiety.  How does Mary explain her pregnancy to Joseph, to her family, to her community?  What will Joseph do?  How will he cope with the disruptions the blessed event causes?  Will the child survive the threats against him?  Who is this child, who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate, and was made man?

So perhaps my unease is not unreasonable.  There should be a sort of ambiguity in our minds come Christmastide.  For the wondrous gifts of Christmas come only through the Cross.  The coming of the Christ Child will bring the rising and falling of many, even in our own lives.

Come, Lord Jesus.

incarnation

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Letter 15: Veni Emmanuel

f2def50dc61dee3d095d9cd167a283e9As with so many other things, the progression of this blog is interrupted by Christmas. The festive season sweeps all before its path, demanding that all pay it attention. Even those who do not celebrate it must account for it, if only to launch legal action to blocks others from imposing Christmas on them.

Nearly every year, I find myself frazzled and spent by this time. Too many activities, constant buying, and the even more difficult business of preparing my own wish list leave muttering with Scrooge that I will boil in his own pudding the next idiot who wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and bury him with a spike of holly driven through his very heart. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

We have built up in our minds, I think, the image of the “perfect” Christmas. This is fed, in part, by depictions in the media, retailers, advertisers, and even the church. We must be surrounded by family. Everyone must be happy, and receive many appropriate gifts. We must celebrate with various social relations, co-workers, lodge members, fellow parishioners. We must be charitable, and if we do give, we become a magnet to every worthy cause, who seek further beneficence from us.

What have these things to do with Christmas?

Take family, for example. The Christmas story is remarkable for its lack of family. Contrast the birth of John the Baptist at the end of Luke 1 with the birth of Jesus that takes up most of Luke 2. John’s birth was a community event. God manages to scare up some shepherds for Jesus, in addition to whatever animals were present. Since Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David,” presumably, he knew somebody in Bethlehem, but he curiously seems to have made no effort to reach them, since they are not present. Worse, there is the possibility that he did tell them, and they refused to help him, given the suspicious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. The first Christmas featured plenty of family disappointment.

Gifts? How retails love to hear the word. Images of wise men are summoned up, and for those more leery of such appeals, the reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to us. But the wise men come later on. Joseph has found a house to live in by then, and Jesus is several years old, since Herod will round up every child under five years of age. And the gifts are really an act of worship, recognizing, as they do various facets of Christ’s identity and mission. Myrrh, as John Hopkins points out in his carol, is used chiefly to embalm the dead, hardly a useful gift for a child. Gold, yes, but myrrh? The “first” Christmas featured less than useful or even tasteless gifts. Anyone want a prepaid funeral plan for Christmas?

The first Christmas was shabby and filthy. It smelled. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle kept a farm in Vermont, which we would visit every summer. We walked carefully through the barn, to avoid the “cow pies.” You would occasionally see either the horses or the cows peeing in their stalls. All of this surrounded the Christ child that night.

Indeed, the visions of joy and serenity fail to grapple with the undercurrent of fear and distress that permeate the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all told, “Do not be afraid.” Then Joseph is told to flee in the middle of night to take the child out from the clutches of those who wish to kill him. Herod is positively terrified of the child. Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child will cause tumult everywhere, and closes with the ominous words, “A sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The wise men depart by another route. Fear and danger are everywhere. John captures this in Revelation 12. A monstrous red dragon awaits the coming Christ child. The streets of Bethlehem ran red with the blood of children.

Historically, the Church seems to have recognized the great tension inherent in Christmas, even without all of our modern pre-occupations. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Stephen, of course, was the first martyr. Two days later, the Western Church honors the Holy Innocents. Christ’s coming brings death, even His own. The celebration is tempered with sorrow.

For the past several years I have wrestled with how to best celebrate this season. I am haunted by a feeling of emptiness. The joy and excitement that I think I should be feeling are far from me. My efforts at producing the expected spirit have fallen flat.

So I go back to the stories of the first Christmas.

In re-reading them, I am impressed at the disruption and the disappointment. For all of the Jews waiting for Messiah to come, it is amazing that none of them are in attendance. This becomes a recurring theme of Jesus’ life. He is not the Messiah they are looking for. Jesus slips by unnoticed, not unlike today.

Do I miss Him?

I am coming to the conclusion that worship is the key to Christmas. The point of our celebration should be Christ, and honoring, and worshipping Him. Perhaps this is not such a digression from our considerations after all. Prepare for the Coming King, do him homage. I think you will that many of the things we usually do this time of year fall away.

Read the old story. Meditate on the words. Sit in the stillness. Appreciate the light and the darkness. Marvel with Mary, tremble with shepherds, worship with the wise men, weep with the mothers of Bethlehem, sing with the angels.

Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King!

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