Monthly Archives: December 2011

Keeping Christ in Christmas…in a Christ-like way

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people!  (Except anyone who is ashamed to call themselves a Christian.)  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!   (And if anyone puts up a tree in December and calls it anything other than a Christmas tree, they are sellouts in the war on religion.)  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (and he is sick of you people who write ‘Xmas’ instead of ‘Christmas.’)” 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!  (Which doesn’t include you if you even think of uttering the phrase ‘Happy Holidays!’)”  (Luke 2:8-14, RSAV)

By now, we’ve probably all seen those Facebook posts demanding that we “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Between those messages and the relentless TV ads trying to convince us that buying an Audi this December somehow constitutes simplified living, it’s no wonder to me that people commit suicide this time of year.

Here’s the version I’ve seen most often, with varying degrees of pique thrown in for flavor:  “I’m inviting all my Facebook family and friends to join me in returning to the traditional greeting of “MERRY CHRISTMAS” instead of the politically correct “Happy Holidays”!! If you agree with me, please re-post this message…..MERRY CHRISTMAS!  We need Christ back into (sic) our lives.”

Maybe I’m missing something – and I’d be the last person to say I have the market cornered on good solid Christian doctrine – but I really don’t believe that expressing inclusive holiday greetings minimizes the presence of Christ in my own life in any way.  And approaching Christmas with more belligerence than we already see in checkout lines and parking lots constitutes, at the very least, a very dubious witness to the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Nowhere in my Bible is there anything along the lines of, “Sayeth not thou Happy Holidays lest ye be cast with sinners into the outer darkness where there is wailing, gnashing of teeth, and justifiable use of pepper spray in pursuit of Christmas bargains.”  So, how is it that approaching one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar which honors perhaps the smallest, humblest single event in ANY deity’s life, so many of us mount our high horses to defend a holiday that doesn’t appear, at least to me, to be in any danger of going extinct?  Especially not in a country where this high holy day lies alongside the single biggest consumer bacchanalia of the year.

It’s challenging to preserve the sanctity of a holy day during a season that stands in aggressive opposition to Christ-like values, but for those of us who believe it’s important to do so, the challenge is for us, not for the world at large.  It is not the world’s responsibility to keep Christ in Christmas – it is our responsibility.  Let’s try to remember this when a non-Christian coworker graciously wishes us happy holidays or when we’re stuck in holiday traffic. 

And while we’re keeping Christ in Christmas, I think it’s worth keeping the other nativity characters in Christmas, too:

  • You think Mary at eight months pregnant had the energy or inclination that December to bake twelve dozen cookies, attend parties all over town, and shop like demons were driving her over a cliff?  The four weeks of Advent are Mary’s holiday and it’s meant to be a season of deliberate quiet and reflective anticipation of the incarnation of God at the feet of humanity, not the appearance of Santa at the foot of the chimney.
  • One of the most profound acts of moral courage anywhere in the Bible appears in the second verse of Christ’s life story.*  In that verse, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant – and not by him.  At that time and in that place, he could have demanded her death as an adulteress.  But not only does he not demand his legal rights, he makes plans to protect her from public humiliation.  Joseph could have chosen to do the right thing under the law – we are told that he was a just man.  But he does the kind thing because he is also a good man.  No wonder he was chosen to be God’s stepparent.
  • The magi and the shepherds probably have deep moral significance in the nativity story, but I confess I’ve never given it much thought.  It’s enough for me that they’re the main players in two of my favorite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings,” and “Rise Up, Shepherds.”**
  • The heavenly host, whom I misquoted at the beginning of this blog, exemplifies the very joy of heaven at the human incarnation of God and the coming reconciliation between mortal flesh and the divine.  Joyful reconciliation – THAT’S the meaning of Christmas.

And lest we forget, Herod was also a major player in the nativity story. 

Herod, my friends, is not the arch-villain of Christmas because he wasn’t a believer.  Herod is the villain because he did believe.  He believed, wholeheartedly, that Christ was a threat to his own power and position.  So, Herod annihilated an entire generation of children in his utter conviction that his position was the only thing in the world worth preserving.

Our Christianity is not the only thing in the world worth preserving.  But Christ is something about Christmas that’s worth preserving.  Let’s do our best to be like him.  And God bless us every one.

* Okay, technically, the begats are the beginning of Christ’s biography, but honestly.  Who reads the begats?  I’m a freakin’ seminarian and I’m not ashamed to say that I run shrieking from the room whenever I see a begat. 

** Just so you don’t think I’m a total Scrooge, here’s a quick shout out to three of my other favorites: “Mister Grinch,” “The Chipmunk Song,” and “Jingle Bells” by The Singing Dogs.  Because Christmas is a religious holiday at my house and religion is way too important to be taken entirely seriously.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011

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Yahweh Claus

At this festive time of year, when many of us are celebrating dual Christmases – you know, the one that honors the birth of Christ alongside the one that generates fourth quarter revenue for Citicorp – I think it’s important to make a distinction between the deities governing each.  Because, frankly, I think many of us are thoroughly confused by the difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. 

The currency of our childhood relationship with Santa is good behavior, the assumption being that the more good behavior we produce, the better off we’ll be when Christmas morning rolls around.  The currency of our adult relationship with Santa is a good deal simpler – the currency is, well, currency. 

For many of us, the currency of our adult relationships with God is alarmingly similar to that of our childhood relationships with Santa Claus – I’ll be good, just please make things work out for me.  And when they do, I’ll show you how good I am by thanking you profusely.  And then I’ll pick something else for you to work on for me.

There’s nothing wrong with laying our cares before God and sharing earnest appreciation for our blessings.  But if those are our ONLY topics of conversation with God, we’re in for a very boring relationship.  It turns into this kind of dinner with the ‘rents:

“Dear Mom, will you please pass the salt?”

“Here you go.”

“Bless you and thank you, Mom.”

Munch, munch, munch.

“Dear Dad, will you please pass the peas?”

“Here you go.”

“Bless you and thank you, Dad.”

Munch, munch. 

“Dear Mom, please can we have fried chicken tomorrow night?”

“Only if you have faith.”

“Dear Mom, I believe.  Help me in mine unbelief.  Will you please pass the potatoes?”

And so on. 

I’d love to be able to blame this transaction-orientated attitude toward God on our consumer-driven culture, but the fact is, this is how people of the Judeo-Christian variety have always related to God, way before the invention of Santa Claus.  And over and over again, we’re reminded that this is NOT what God ever had in mind.

Joshua understood the stakes involved in a love relationship with a God so enamored of human beings that God pretty much lost his mind whenever the Israelites cheated on him.  Let me introduce Joshua: he took over leading the Israelites after Moses retired.*  At the end of Joshua’s life, after the Israelites had mopped the proverbial floor with everyone in Canaan, Joshua had a little “come-to-Yahweh” talk with them.  It’s too long to reproduce here, but the gist is as follows:

Joshua:  We’ve been dating God for generations.  Now, it’s time to decide whether or not to get married.  No big deal if you don’t want to (other than making yourselves a bunch of idol-worshipping infidels who’ll get slaughtered in the Book of Judges), but you have to decide now.  Me and my peeps are going to, but you do whatever you want.

Israelites:  We’ll follow God!  God gave us everything we wanted!  God’s totally bitchin’!  We LOVE this guy!

Joshua:  Are you serious?  We’re talking MARRIAGE, here.  You’re not up for that kind of commitment.  And if you try to break up with God, you’re really going to hurt God’s feelings and then you’ll be sorrrrryyyy.

Israelites:  NOT!  We’ll follow God.

Joshua:  Fine, from your lips to…well…God’s ears.

And the rest of the Bible chronicles, in lurid detail, how rocky that marriage has been.

I think Joshua’s point was this:  Getting everything we want from God is not the same thing as being in relationship with God.  And to be in relationship with God, I’m reminded of an old adage of my mother’s, “To have a friend, you have to BE a friend.”  This isn’t really rocket science.  To be a friend, we:

  • Let the other person do some of the talking.  That means we shut up and listen.  Sometimes friends talk very quietly.  Sometimes, they don’t talk at all – they’re just happy we’re there paying attention. 
  • Care about what our friend cares about and if we’re really serious about the friendship, we care with more than lip service.  For example, we know that Jesus cared deeply for the poor.  So what’s our new Xbox got to do with what HE wants this Christmas? 

This is way different from Santa’s expectations of me.  Santa Claus and I are not “in relationship” just because he brought me a set of stainless steel cookware last year.  Heck, Santa doesn’t even care if I can pay for the presents I buy.  Santa will gladly extend credit, which boils my responsibility down to paying my minimum balance for the next forty years.  And I’ve never given one second’s worth of thought to what Santa might want in return; the arrangement doesn’t require that.  Santa exists to reward or punish our behavior – he sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake, he knows if we’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…so we’ll get presents. 

When we think of God as a cosmic Claus, we hamstring our relational capacity because we only experience God transactionally – when we want something or, more rarely, when we get or give something. 

God just wants us.

* Not insignificantly, Joshua was portrayed in The Ten Commandments by a bronzed and glossy John Derek:

 

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011


Damnin’ mammon

But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “You dumbasses.  I didn’t say it was impossible.  Did I say it was impossible?”  (Mark 10:24-27, 21st Century Gen-X Paraphrase edition)

In the wake of the Occupy phenomenon and having read Newt Gingrich’s, er, “analysis” of the plight of the poor this morning, I decided it was time to share some thoughts on one of the New Testament’s trickiest passages (see above.)

Mark 10:24-27 is echoed in Luke 16:13 (“You cannot love God and money”) and in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, where he famously says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (I Timothy 6:10)  Even the author of Ecclesiastes weighs in with, “Whoever loves money never has enough.  Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied.  This too is meaningless.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

Many people look at these sentiments as indictments of rich people.  Others take the message to mean that rich people aren’t the problem; rather, wealth is the problem.  I say, you can’t have rich people without wealth, so the latter argument never made much sense to me.   I also can’t get behind the first argument.  Jesus and Paul had wealthy friends and disciples.  And by popular tradition, the author of Ecclesiastes was none other than King Solomon.  They don’t get any richer than that.

IMHO, Jesus, Paul, and Mister Whoever-He-Was author of Ecclesiastes aren’t talking about wealth at all, at least not literally.  Paul never said that money is the root of all evil.  He said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  Biblical thinkers didn’t bash wealth – they bashed the misplaced priorities of some wealthy people.   What they’re talking about is idolatry. 

Wealth is just a thing.  Its value is reckoned by human beings, which means it bears no intrinsic moral currency of its own.  It’s a wooden statue overlain with gold.  It’s lifeless, without breath.  What gives it “life” is how we respond to it. 

If the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, what does that say about its mirror image: contempt for the moneyless?  Same thing, I’m guessing.  If Jesus didn’t love the poor, we’d be hard-pressed to say he loved anyone.  Do we ever see him getting angry or even impatient with a poor person, a sick person, a suffering person?  I’m no Biblical scholar, but the only people I can remember him flipping out on are scribes and Pharisees (over the disconnect between their espoused moral superiority and their crappy treatment of other people) and the moneychangers in the temple (for turning Judaism into a profit-making enterprise.)  Poor people – prostitutes, adulterers, tax-collectors, demoniacs, the sick and injured, and yes, Mr. Gingrich, the working poor like farmers, carpenters, and fishermen  –  were never on Jesus’ s**t list.

So, what does this mean for people of means?  First of all, the two commandments Jesus cited as most important were all about cultivating loving relationships: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  We need to actively apply ourselves to practicing these; and they are hard standards to live by because they don’t come naturally to us.  The first is a challenge because, let’s face it, God’s hard to love.  (I’ll be blogging on this very topic next week.)  And loving our neighbor?  Most of us can barely stand our friends and families, let alone the guy across the street who fires up his weed-eater at 7:00 on Sunday mornings.  And if we can’t love the people we know, how are we supposed to love people we a) know nothing about (common ignorance spectacularly modeled by Pat Robertson last week) or b) think we know something about, and whatever it is we think we know, it’s BAD (venomous ignorance spectacularly modeled by our former Speak of the House earlier this week.)

I think this means acknowledging that, spiritually speaking, EVERYBODY is our neighbor and day-by-day doing our doggonedest unto them as we’d have them do unto us.

Second, I think we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the 99%.  Taken from a global point of view, I’d be willing to wager that most of the people reading this blog – just like the one writing it – are part of the 1%.  If we can rely on potable, running water; if there’s reliable trash pickup in our neighborhood; if the lights generally come on when we flip a switch; and we’re not digging through dumpsters for whatever the squirrels rejected for dinner, we are among the people Jesus addressed with his “camel-through-a-needle” spiel.

But there’s hope.  Because although these things may be impossible for mere mortals, God works in mysterious ways and not all of them involve supernatural miracles.   I think a camel CAN go through the eye of a needle if any one of the following three conditions is met: 

  1. The camel is very small 
  2. The needle is hella big
  3. The camel is liquefied in a blender and fed through the eye of the needle with a very small syringe

Maybe, though, we should also pray for some miracles.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2011


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