It’s upon us already. Christmas-y kitsch is here, and it’s only mid-November. In fact, I heard that Nordstrom’s is not putting up any Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving. It’s astonishing that something which seemed fairly standard not long ago – waiting until after Thanksgiving to start Christmas – is now so counter-cultural it makes news.Meanwhile, we in the church are extremely counter-cultural. While the world is going into Christmas crazy-ness, the church focuses on other themes, particularly about an apocalyptic end-time (Mk. 13:1-8). This theme is only going to get more pronounced over these next six weeks. During Advent – the four week season leading up to Christmas – we’ll actually talk more about the second coming than about the first one and the baby and the manger and that little town of Bethlehem.
Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas? My answer is simple: look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake! By the time we actually start talking about Christmas in the church, around the evening of December 24, many folks will be taking down their trees and removing their yard ‘art’ and making New Years’ resolutions about losing the 15 pounds they added during the holiday and saying to themselves, with great exhaustion, “Whew, I’m so glad this only happens once a year.” Look what they’ve done with Christmas. Is this the story you want told, an exhausting sprint through the world of marketing and media and mayhem? Or do you want another story, and is your heart yearning, pleading for another story of a life well lived and the gift of God’s goodness?
Speaking of which, here’s another annual ‘Christmas’ tradition I haven’t yet experienced, but I’m sure I will. Every year, someone or some headline or some email gets all hot and bothered because someone said to them “Happy holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas.” (God help the person who says “Happy Hannakuh” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or, for that matter, “Happy Festivus”!) Or someone else is going to clip out an article about a local town, somewhere, which refuses to put up a crèche in the village center, or insists that a Star of David also needs to be there. This ‘tradition’ happens every year, as well, and it’s almost as exhausting as the other one, to me at least. Why is it the culture’s job to say Merry Christmas? Why is it the job of the department store or TV station or local jurisdiction to preach Christmas? And if this is what they’ve done to Christmas – turning it into a holiday completely devoid of what it’s about, for us, as Christians – do you really want them in charge in the first place?
It’s your job to say Merry Christmas, and live it, too. It’s my job to say it and model it, as well. It’s our job, as followers of the Way, to be Christmas people. And if we want to show the world what this means we’ve got to prepare differently, and renew in ourselves a story that is, at its core, all about renewal.
In the Gospel of Mark’s thirteenth chapter – what scholars call Mark’s “little apocalypse” – Jesus predicts that the Jerusalem Temple will be toppled. Later, standing atop the Mount of Olives – the very place where the prophet Zechariah predicted God will stand at the end of days – Jesus foretells of earthquakes and wars and all those nasty, bad, terrible, no good things we associate with the apocalypse. This type of literature frightens us. It’s scattered throughout the bible, through the prophets and Daniel and, certainly, Revelation, yet it causes in us feelings of discomfort and fear and un-ease.
The word, apocalypse, though, is a rather welcome term for early Christians, and it should be welcome for us, even today. The Greek word simply means an uncovering, a revelation from God of what was previously hidden from our understanding or vision. All the drama which surrounds apocalyptic literature – the earthquakes, pestilence, fire, warfare, seven-headed beasts, four horsemen – is simply there as code language.
And here’s the basic meaning of that code: When God comes, the world and everything in it is going to change. Apocalyptic literature was welcome to early, persecuted Christians, then, for it was a message of redemption and release. Similarly, I’d say, apocalyptic literature can be liberating for us, too, for it sets us free from the crazy-ness which this world has already embarked on, the ways they’ve taken a story of new life and turned it into a marketed, draining secular observance.
When God comes, everything’s going to change. The world will be turned upside down, and this culture’s rampant pursuit of death – and, if anything, secular Christmas points profoundly to a culture fixated on killing itself – will be set against an offering of real life, the only kind of life that can truly be called life, namely, God’s. Later in December you’ll hear Mary proclaim this very truth in her song, called the Magnificat: God has “looked with favor on his lowly servant; … he has scattered the proud in their conceit; … he has lifted up the lowly; … and the rich he has sent empty away.” That theme resounds, as well, in the song Hannah sang upon hearing that she is pregnant with the one who will become her firstborn boy, the son whom she will name Samuel, the biblical character who will renew his people, not unlike Mary’s son centuries later. Hannah, too, proclaims that when God comes, everything’s going to change: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. … He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Sam. 2:1-10)
It’s wonderful to have stories of pregnancy and birth in this season of preparation. I suspect that God’s coming will not appear, to us, as earthquakes and wars and headline news. On the contrary: I suspect God’s coming will be much more quiet, off to the side, unnoticed by many, much like a woman who is pregnant and is waiting the day of expectation, knowing that it’s coming and so she waits, patiently. This world, itself, is pregnant with the possibility of new life, and yet that life is not found in the splashy celebrations or public observations or kitsch on the lawns or department store shuffle. The life which is offered of God, the life which really is life, is born in unexpected places, in quieter moments, in the opening hearts and minds of ordinary women and men who decide to observe differently, to worship more fully, to spend less money, and give more of their life.
This, to me, sounds a lot like Christmas, which is not only a counter-cultural, upside-down kind of holiday but is also a subtle story, a baby born in a barn to two unwed parents, greeted by beasts of burden and dirty, uncultured shepherds. God is turning this world over upon its head every day, but doing so by a quiet, interior revolution, it seems.
Join that revolution, then, and make these next several weeks a revolutionary series of observations, for yourself and for your community. Turn away from that death-march the secular world calls ‘Christmas’ and find God’s pregnant possibilities within, where they’ve always been. That’s a life worthy of being called life, one which will feed you and one whereby you can feed others, as well.