Christmas — Part 2

This series is going to spread out to a third post.  In that post, which I should have up in a couple of days, I’ll deal with the specifics of how we are handling Advent and Christmas.  This post will deal with some more preliminaries.

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In my previous post I attempted to give a fair description of the problem: NI churches by and large do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday (fine enough in a time when the culture was predominantly Christian) and now have few resources with which to face the consumerist juggernaut that is the modern American Christmas.

In this post I will attempt to describe the thought process behind my own approach in my family to this problem.

I should perhaps acknowledge at the outset that I have neither command, example, or necessary inference for any of this.  I appeal to Paul’s injunction in Romans 14.5-6 and beg your forbearance for what I propose here.  (The question of authority is not far from my thoughts as I write this.  I will take a moment to say that this is one place where our traditional method of Scriptural interpretation has shown itself to be less than adequate.  Many of us in NI churches value our heritage of cultural separatism — manifested in a pacifist ethic, a non-participationist stance toward human government, the wearing of the head covering, etc. — but the Baconian hermeneutic sometimes serves as a roadblock in trying to get there.  It has no category for “ought,” the very category in which I would place the following suggestions.  That’s a separate post, though.)

Back to Christmas.

It shouldn’t take a great deal of effort to see how the consumerist mentality (discussed in my previous post) has affected all of our holidays.  Consider our civil calendar as it unfolds toward the end of the year: we begin with Halloween (which really begins being marketed in September), but no sooner than Halloween is over (in some cases before) Christmas begins to be pushed most everywhere (not as a reminder of the birth of Jesus, mind you, but as an exhortation to go out and buy stuff).  This lasts until December 25th.  It might seem that Thanksgiving (a holiday seemingly devoted to a good principle) would be forgotten in the midst of all of this, but the advertising industry in recent decades has devised Black Friday and now Cyber Monday to give that holiday an appropriately commercial tint as a kind of prelude to Christmas.  It goes further than that, of course.  I noticed this year the advent of the “Black Friday preview day” on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  It would seem that there is nothing else the marketers can do unless they target Thanksgiving Day itself, which some have already started doing (Wal-mart, most notably).  The weeks following Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas are a frenzy of shopping — and of being reminded, nagged even, to shop by the television, the radio and every other venue in which an ad can be placed.

In light of this, Christmas itself might seem to be a bit anticlimactic.  Not to worry!  Before the piles of wrapping paper can be cleared away from under the tree, the media begins to discuss (and encourage) returns and day-after-Christmas sales (the best time to find a bargain!  salve the pain of disappointment by getting what you really wanted!).  And so it goes on up until a little past New Years’ (also accompanied by sales) when the frenzy finally subsides.  The dominant motif here — do I need to point out the obvious? — is the buying and selling of stuff.  Especially with Christmas, we tell ourselves that if we get the right stuff, then we’ll be happy.  If we’re not happy, then we can go to the store and exchange the wrong stuff for the stuff we really wanted that will make us happy (provided we have our gift receipt!).  Simple, right?

I think we all know that the sketch just given contains a lot more truth than we might want to admit.  I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

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So how do we respond?

I see a few possible options.

First, we could decide to chuck the entire holiday season.  A pox on all the holidays!  A pox on commercialism and on the (unscriptural) worship of Baby Jesus!  No Santa, no Jesus, no gifts, no anything.  This does, I suppose, have the virtue of being simple and uncomplicated.  But it leaves unaddressed the consumerism that created the problem to begin with: a vacuum that something will very likely come in and fill.  I’ve written here countless times before on the subject of how we like to pretend that larger cultural and social forces have no effect on our understanding and practice of the Christian faith.    The secularist and consumerist mindset of the late modern West is the granddaddy of them all.  I would argue that no one can get through this period in the year without somehow being affected by commercialism of it.

Second, we could try to have it both ways.  We could, as pointed out in the comment thread on the previous post, combine the commercialism of the season with a recognition of the birth of Jesus.  This is the path taken by many ‘mainstream’ Churches of Christ.  Examples could be multiplied.  Suffice it to say, though, that these efforts do little to actively curb the excess associated with the season.  Ultimately, this represents as high a degree (maybe higher!) of obliviousness to the surrounding culture and its celebration of the holiday as do our attempts not to celebrate the holiday.

Third, we could concede the value of observing Jesus’ birth at a commonly accepted time of year (in the same way that we have conceded the value of celebrating a number of secular holidays in our churches — Father’s Day, anyone?) and focus on giving up our consumerist idolatry.  That’s what I want to focus on here.  It’s the path that my family (I, my wife and my two girls) is taking.

What resources do we have for this? Where might we go for direction?

The Bible, to start with.  Assuming that we acknowledge the value of reflecting on Jesus’ birth — God taking on flesh and dwelling among us — we have a lot to learn from the prophets and from the accounts (largely ignored in our pulpits) found in Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2.  Moreover, there is a large body of hymnody, already found in most hymnals in use among Churches of Christ, that instruct us on the significance of this event.  Read Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” or the mediaeval Latin hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for two of the most beautiful and thought-provoking of such hymns.

Even if we grant this (and I recognize that some of you won’t go that far — and I respect that), how do we deal with the secular observance of Christmas.  Simply reading the birth accounts found in the Gospels and singing a few songs — as meaningful as that can be on Christmas morning — won’t prepare us or our children to face the onslaught that comes each year around this time.  For this, I think, we need a means of preparation that helps to focus our minds on these events in the weeks and months prior to December 25th.

Nowhere does the secularist mindset have us enslaved more than in the way it encourages us think of time.  Think back to the description of the calendar I sketched earlier.  At this point in the year, by the lights of that calendar we should be asking ourselves daily, “How many more shopping days until Christmas?”  It doesn’t have to be that way though.

The early Church understood this: It lived in a world that was ordered by a pagan/state-oriented calendar that set aside numerous days for sacrifices to the gods and the emperor, festivals in honor of local patron deities and gladiatorial combats also held in honor of the gods of the state.  The first Christians could not abide the idolatry inherent in this system.  To compete with it (and it was a very alluring system), the Church realized that it would have to recapture time.  The ecclesiastical calendar that developed in the patristic era was designed to do just that: it restructured time, for the Christian, around events in the life of Christ rather than around the worship of the state and its gods and their lewd (and often violent) festivals.  As it developed over the centuries, the last three months of the secular calendar were punctuated by several feast days, beginning with All Saint’s Day at the beginning of November.  In the western calendar, the four weeks prior to Christmas are known as Advent.  In them, the Scriptural focus is on Jesus’ first coming (as foretold by the prophets) and on his second coming (when he comes in judgment — traditionally Advent was understood to be a time of fasting, prayer and penitence, in preparation for Christmas).  The feast day of St Nicholas (the historical figure upon whom the Santa Claus myth is based) falls on December 6.  On it, Nicholas “the Wonder-Worker,” the Archbishop of Myra (d. 330) is commemorated, especially for his many acts of kindness and giving.  Finally, there comes Christmas.

This sketch, it should be acknowledged, leaves out a great deal, but that is the basic structure of the calendar during these months.

In my family, we are ordering our approach to Christmas around the traditional four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas, and including a commemoration of St Nicholas’ Day as well.  We will use these markers as a way for us and for our children to prepare for Christmas.

I don’t expect this to be a cure-all.  Children especially are susceptible, even when their parents aren’t (and how often do we totally avoid it?), to the lures of the consumerist worldview.  It’s a start, though.  And if we start early enough, it may just catch on by the time they face their first conversations about Santa Claus at school.

More to come…

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2 responses to “Christmas — Part 2

  1. More good stuff. Thanks.

    As you may have read on my blog, I’ve been wrestling with Bill Cavanaugh a lot lately. All his work on “religion” has me rather fascinated. And your mention of early Christianity’s attempt to “recapture time” made me think of something he wrote in his article “God is Not Religious” — in it Cavanaugh said, “For traditional Christianity, the saeculum was not a space but a time, the time between the fall and the second coming of Christ.” Since you’ve studied late antiquity, I wondered if you were familiar with the notion of secular as time? It seems to me that as such, the early Christian calendar would then be a way to affirm the reign of Christ in the midst of the secular era, so to speak.

    I know this comment isn’t strictly about Advent, but your post got me thinking.

    “Light and Life to all he brings,
    “Risen with healing in his wings.
    “Hark, the herald angels sing,
    “Glory to the new born King.”

    Peace.

  2. It’s been about four or five years since I read God is Not…. I’m going to pull it and re-read Cavanaugh. I had forgotten that he said anything on the question of time.

    As to late antique studies, the one book that comes to mind is R.A. Markus’ The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, 1990). He deals extensively with both sacred time and sacred space as those concepts developed during the late fourth and fifth centuries. I have no idea whether Lipscomb’s library has a copy.

    I like your phrase, “…a way to affirm the reign of Christ in the midst of the secular era.” For the Fathers, it’s about bringing everything under the reign of Christ, including time. David Bentley Hart talks about that concept at length in some of his articles for First Things and in his recent book Atheist Delusions.

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