Disclaimer: This is NOT my Christmas sermon, so reading it does not absolve you from going to church!
I hate Christmas ranting. I strongly dislike all the trite little catch-phrase campaigns like “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” and “Put Christ back into Christmas” and “If you love Jesus and have the courage to repost this (which 98% of all people won’t)” Facebook status reports. I hate it when preachers get up onto their high horse pedestals and trash Christmas celebrations that have grown near and dear to our hearts, like shopping. Or when the Christmas pundits criticize folks for not being more charitable, more giving, or more liberal/conservative. I also hate it when people chant “Keep Christmas in your hearts all year long.”
There, I’ve said it. If I haven’t stepped on your toes yet, give me a call and I’ll try harder. Yes, I recognize that I just committed all the sins I just renounced.
The truth is, I love Christmas. I love baking cookies and reading my picture books with kids. I love putting up the tree and the village with the train running around it. I love cooking Christmas dinner, and baking Christmas breads. I love shopping and wrapping. I love seeing a congregation with starlight in their eyes and their faces aglow in candlelight when we sing Silent Night. I love the Christmas Eve Prayer of the Day, “You made this holy night to shine….” I love buying treats for the dogs and counting down the days until Christmas. I love it when people strive to be a little kinder, and I love giving people the gift of kindness and patience when they are checking me out at the store, or standing in line, with harried looks on their faces after yet another customer’s complaining harangue.
Most of all, I love the surreptitious and subversive sneaking around that goes with Christmas gift giving. I love the yearly enterprise of hiding my trail, looking innocent, plotting, scheming, watching and listening–all essential elements of surprise. Maybe, just maybe, this is closer to the real reason for the Season than anyone thinks. Maybe, just maybe, this is the convicting truth that Christians have failed at Christmas.
God’s scheme for saving God’s people from their sins comes in way under the radar. Another pregnant out of wedlock girl. A baby, and not the Gerber baby at that. Sure, the shepherds go out telling the world all that they have seen and heard–but a shepherd was not a legal witness in a court of law. Christmas is the first half of God’s subversive plot to reverse the tyrannical order of The Way the World Is. The only way to change The Way the World Is is to become What the World Is Not, and live long enough to tell about it. That takes a sneaky, surreptitious plot. Like sending a baby to the front lines.
Sometimes the pious are scandalized by the layering of Christian practices over the top of the pagan, but that’s been the point all along. Jesus comes in human flesh, layered in with and under straw, and layers God’s Truth over the World’s Truth. As a baby. No Trojan Horse was ever so effective. So we Christianized all those pagan solstice festivals, evergreens, and superstitious measures to sustain ourselves through the darkest days of the years. Enough Christmas cookies, chocolate, wassail, and stollen should do the trick just fine. We take on all the trappings so that we can invest them with new meanings quite contrary to their Not Christian designs and origins. We used all the hopes and fears of the world, all the world’s garland and tinsel and greed and will to power and learned helplessness…..in order to subvert them. That’s the Trojan Baby who sneaks into the manger straw and even into the grave. Now THAT’s the true meaning of Christmas.
I love this image of Santa kneeling at the manger, but no, please don’t give me one for Christmas now or ever. The reason this image works is its subversion–the god of the Coca-cola Santa Claus kneeling in obeisance to the Baby. I hate this image of Santa kneeling at the manger because it stops at “Good Enough.” We think we can syncretize Santa and Jesus and they all mean the same thing and does it matter anyway. Instead of radical subversion, we join with the flow so that the shrug our shoulders at the “What does this mean?” question as though the answer is “Nothing Really.”
All the ranting is a waste of breath. You can’t keep Jesus as the Reason for the Season because Jesus came into this season against all reason. You can’t keep Christmas all year in your heart, because this baby has sneaked into the world and claimed every baby–your own little heart just isn’t big enough. I’m okay with Christianizing the pagan festivals. Just don’t expect that they won’t fight back, sneak into our lives and expand our waistlines and makes us temporarily generous and only slightly reluctant church goers, because hey, we love the music. The danger of being a subversive going in deep is that one becomes a little too much at home and “like” one of the family (which is to say, regrettable, still NOT one of the family.) One forgets that this work is life-threatening. The risk of being discovered could cost dearly. One could lose more than perspective. There is not an option to not go in deep, most likely over one’s head. The One who lies in a manger will lie in the grave one day.
We have failed at Christmas. I’m glad of it. Let the world have it back, but pass that plate of cookies here first. Our failure to protect Christmas from the encroachment of the Way of the World can mean we are sent to the back lines to regroup or “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” We have trapped Christmas in the trappings, and don’t believe we can let It go without losing It. The World’s Truth holds fast, and we are dug into the trenches. To change the ancient dance, we have to enter the dance, learn its steps, and subtly, sneakily, subversively change to a new set of steps. The music sneaks across the trenches, hovers out there in No Man’s Land, and reaches our ears as Mary’s song. (Do you know the words? Luke 1-2 should refresh your memory. Luke/Mary is generous and allows us to sing it to our own melody and drums.) Our feet begin to tap, and stiff backbones begin to bend, our shoulders that have been carrying the weight of the world begin to dip and sway. Soon we enter into the No Man’s Land–pretty tough to dance in stinking trenches. There will be some confusion as we mix up the old steps with the new until we can’t remember which is which, or which way is allemand left or allemand right,. That’s the way subversion works. Breathe deeply. The smells of Christmas are not gingerbread, peppermint and evergreen. The smell of Christmas is freshly dropped dung, sweet fresh straw, wood. Mostly wood.
Happy day before the day before Christmas. Maybe the hardest day to keep Jesus the Reason for the Season and in our hearts the whole year through. I know that 98% of the people who read this will never re-post it, but those who love Jesus may or may not re-post it and might even send a gift to ELCA World Hunger”s Good Gifts and buy some honeybees or worms, tiny subversive creatures who change rot and ruin into gold, because that’s the Reason for the Season.