Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.

War on Christmas?

So, I was thinking that I must be really out of the loop these days.  Seems someone has declared war on Christmas (and so one must assume on Christians) and I had no idea. I’m merrily working away in my study instead of practicing battlefield tactics for parish pastors. I haven’t even dugout “Onward Christian Soldiers” so we can sing on the way to the front (note to David, our Minister for Worship and Music). I checked my inbox several times, nothing is there from my bishop or the ELCA offices in Chicago about how to cover this outpost from the attacks.  I checked in on Pope Benedict figuring at least Rome would be on top of this whole situation.  All I could find out was that he now has a Twitter account. Assuming it was all up to me, I tried a push up… (Lets hope my role on the field of battle doesn’t call for much heavy lifting). The church supply houses are not offering any camouflage clergy shirts, so apparently I’m not the only one who missed the commencement of hostilities. Perhaps we should get the property team on some barbed wire and barricades.

So, as I take my tongue out of my cheek, and with all due respect to Bill O’Reilly and the folks at Fox News and any other media outlets that are calling Christians to arms, I find myself wondering what is really up with the feeling – and it is an emotional response, not a rational one – that there is a “War on Christmas?

First, let’s not get pulled into the emotional drama. Those who announce we are at war are in the business of selling soap and filling every minute of every day with things that make us worried enough to watch, so hyperbole is a tool. Henny Penny was absolutely wrong about the sky falling, but the little chicken no doubt had good ratings.  Second, it seems to me that this kind of thing is really an emotional reaction to the changing world in which we live.  I know that the ghosts of Christmas past are powerful and give us a magnified sense of longing for the old days at this time of year – even if our memories are filtered through rose-colored lenses. So, when we hear that a town council has decided not to put up a nativity scene, or that a store has strung a banner that says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” we feel like our “good old days” are being turned to bad new days.  That makes some of us mad, perhaps fighting mad.  But, before we arm ourselves for war, we best make sure there is an enemy and that the enemy is not really us.

So, what about the battle of the winter greeting? Aren’t opposing forces trying to force us to stop saying “Merry Christmas?” Should we say “Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?”  “Happy Hanukkah?” “Blessed Kwanzaa?” or “Holly Jolly Winter Solstice?”  My answer: Sure.  Say them all, with gusto.  And don’t be afraid of the term Xmas — it is not an atheist plot.  Xmas is shorthand with a Greek letter. “X” (chi) is the first letter of “Christ.”

“But Pastor, aren’t these other people and traditions stealing our Holiday?”  No, not really.  The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is not done because Jesus was actually born on that day.  We have no real idea what day is really Jesus’ birthday.  Christians in the west stole December 25 from the pagans, who worship the sun.  It is near the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. “Happy Holidays” uses an English word that means “holy-days.”  Why would I wish a Jewish friend anything but “Happy Hanukkah?”  Why would I wish someone who does not believe in Jesus as the Son of God a “Merry Christmas” unless I was trying to provoke.  It is that kind of behavior that probably turned the person off to Christians in the first place.  Accept a greeting for what it is.  Give a greeting that edifies the other person.  No enemies here.

Ah, you say, but what about the ACLU and all those atheists who keep taking down public displays of the Nativity?  They must be enemies.  Maybe. Maybe not.  Personally, I don’t want city hall or the public schools messing with the proclamation of the gospel.  The Oklahoma State House now has a monument to the 10 Commandments.  It is drawing fire from those who say it is not appropriate for the state to promote religion.  Proponents insist that we are a “Christian” nation.  Ahem.  Excuse me, but the 10 Commandments are the Jewish covenant first.  Second, the commandments are ordered in a way that does not match Luther’s Small Catechism.  And last but not least, they misspelled Sabbath. “Sabeth.” No kidding. Leave the faith stuff to the church, please. I’m beggin’ ya.  I also do not want Macy’s and Younkers messin’ with our holy symbols.  The wise men did not bring the latest Christian Dior fragrance. No enemies here.

The truth is that if there is a “war on Christmas” it has been raging for a long time and the enemy is us. The celebration of the birth of a savior who we would eventually crucify is far more serious than candy canes and fruitcake.  God’s intrusion into the world through the incarnation is too mysterious and awe-filled to celebrate with endless choruses of “Frosty the Snowman.”  The humble birth of Jesus is a much deeper reality than an extended orgy of shopping and spending.  So, I have developed a keen strategy for this war on Christmas.  Let the culture have the shopping, the trees, the blaring music, the cards and the wrapping paper. Let December be for most a limitless venture in debt, unfulfilled expectations and reminiscing about days gone by. Forfeit the battle. For people of faith, retreat and quietly, just give us Jesus.  The only war is for our souls and only Jesus can win it – and he already has. Happy Holy-days. Merry Xmas. Blessed Hanukkah. But mostly, May the peace and joy of Christ by with you all.

Just some joy and a bit of bah humbug for your season.

Pastor Tim