Have You Kept Christ in Christmas?

Each year, the holiday season brings with it many historic traditions, like the red cups at Starbucks, the bad pop Christmas songs playing in every retail store in the country, and the revived rhetoric among certain Christians about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” Perhaps you have heard talk of this on the news or seen posts about it in your Facebook feed. I assume the underlying concern is that the removal of any religious references from the holiday might indicate a resistance against or stifling of Christianity in our country. I can appreciate that. But, first, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got multiple holidays happening in tandem rather than one religious holiday being continually corrupted. C.S. Lewis identified three Christmases in his essay “What Christmas Means to Me” from God in the Dock: there’s the “religious festival,” which is “important and obligatory for Christians,” and the “popular holiday,” which is “an occasion for merry-making and hospitality” for many, regardless of religion or background. Lewis calls the third Christmas the “commercial racket” that “has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.” He elaborates in typical Lewis fashion—smart, concise, funny—if you’re interested in reading the entire essay, but I’ve shared enough to make my present point. Continue reading Have You Kept Christ in Christmas?

I’m Dreaming of a Non-Pop Christmas

As someone who holds a retail job in December, I can tell you that I listen to more than my fair share of Christmas music on a daily basis: remixed versions of “Let It Snow;” endless ballads recounting the life and times of “Frosty The Snowman;” more renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” than are possibly justifiable.

Like trying to find a parking space close to the Apple Store, coordinating relatives’ cross-country travel schedules, and enduring the crowds and lines that comprise every Saturday at the mall in the month of December, this kind of “pop Christmas” music has become another aspect of the holiday season that seems to stress and annoy rather than inspire and comfort. While many of us have our favorite seasonal songs (“The Christmas Waltz,” anyone?), pop Christmas music provides temporary enthusiasm for the holidays at best, and a pang of annoyance and even cynicism at worst.

But there are two types of Christmas music, and they represent two different types of Christmas. Pop Christmas music represents the Christmas that is about hot cocoa, falling in love, enjoying a fresh snowfall, and caroling in the snow. Beloved Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street also populate the pop Christmas world, relaying the importance of revitalizing one’s faith in Santa Claus (a fictional character loosely based on historical St. Nicholas) and thus ironically presenting a sense of faith and devotion related to a Christian holiday that is, at best, only tangentially Christian.

On the flip side, there is Christmas music that represents a deeper, richer, more theological Christmas. This genre of music can be a valuable resource for Christians as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. The weeks leading up to Christmas ought to be a time for contemplation and expectation, not merely gift shopping and baking and decorating. It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, it’s that we as Christians must remember to make time and space to get into the proper mindset during the Advent season. While this kind of non-pop Christmas music presents a starkly different message than its pop counterpart, most of the songs are still prominent enough to be part of the Christmas music canon, and therefore familiar to many. As we prepare for the ending of the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas itself, we can consider these well-known yet perhaps overlooked songs in a new light and, trite as it may sound, reorient ourselves to the true meaning of Christmas.

Take, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who has ever tuned into the Christmas radio station could probably hum the tune from memory, but the song itself is rather antiquated compared to many pop Christmas hits, dating back to the eighteenth century. The first verse is probably the most familiar:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

I find the subsequent verses, though, to be more spiritually engaging, particularly the second and fourth verses:

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

These verses contain several significant theological references. There is mention of the miraculous virgin birth. The second verse speaks of Christ’s fully divine yet fully human nature, borrowing language from the ancient Nicene Creed (“Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created”).  Finally, the verses convey the miracle of Christology—Christ’s position as a member of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father—particularly with the fourth verse’s allusion to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made trough him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (1:1-3)

There are more examples. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is full of Old Testament references to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, specifically the one in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.” This song is an excellent starting point for a conversation about how Scripture of the Old Testament points to Christ’s life and works in the New Testament.

I’m also a fan of the poem-turned-to-song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here is the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Again, the scriptural and theological allusions are simple yet deeply beautiful reminders of real reason we’re to celebrate this time of year, such as the heavenly hosts’ praises to God in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And, of course, there’s the poignant second line: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s a reminder that God is real; God is alive; God is present and human in the birth of Christ; God is with us. Immanuel.

These types of Christmas songs can help center us around the divine, mysterious, miraculous reason for the Advent preparation and Christmas celebrations: that God became man so that the rest of humanity could be redeemed and renewed and able to participate in the divine.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

After Malachi Before Matthew: Long Silences and Christmas

The Harvest is past, summer is ended and we are not saved. –Jeremiah 8:20

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3

When I was growing up I was always picked to play a shepherd in the manger scene. I’m a red headed, Caucasian male with not a drop of blood tracing back to the Holy Land, but I could stand still and be quiet (more or less) so I was perfect for the part. Luke 2 was a favorite chapter to act out during grade school Christmas programs, and for the past two decades, on every first Sunday of December I’ve watched the lighting of the first candle of Advent. From a young age I’ve performed rituals that cultivate anticipation.

Growing up I sang lots of Christmas carols about the coming of Christ, but never about the four hundred years of silence previous to his arrival. There was an emphasis on preparedness for Christ’s coming into the world, but there is a significant difference between anticipation for the month of December and waiting four hundred years. How long can you anticipate something without an intermittent status report or confirmation? What is it like to live in four centuries of silence?

I imagine my ancient ancestors, who didn’t anticipate a Messiah, were more familiar with silence then I am. I live in a world where expectation is celebrated every year for itself. Every Sunday the church is preaching, teaching, and singing about God’s love, his works, and his promises for the future. What would it be like for it all that to gradually go silent? And how long does it take for silence to encourage doubt—for it to make me rush to something talkative and loud? Israel once begged Moses for God to not speak to them “lest they should die.” But how long does he remain silent before you feel the anticipation of non existence?

Emmanuel –God with us—hasn’t always been a comfortable concept. “God with us” was a terrifying reality when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai. It was probably a distant memory for the anointed King David when he roamed the wilderness as an outlaw. For Ahab it was a rouge curse as Elijah cut the throats of the prophets of Baal in the light of heavenly fire. Emmanuel is a heavy reality—inviting a submission that can’t be volunteered by a hardened heart, and the obedient are always driven by Kings and nations into the wild places of the land. As Spurgeon says “men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.”

Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s remnant is pushed into the margins; sometimes the wilderness or as some exiled minority in a foreign city. When this happened Jerusalem became their orientation—it was the city of the temple, the place where God met with man. Inside the Holy of Holies God’s presence dwelled until it was pushed by disobedience into the tongues of the prophets. They prophesied to the nation and were killed by the nation. Zachariah is killed between the altar and the sanctuary. The reader finishes the fourth chapter of Malachi and then it goes quiet.

Four hundred years, roughly the same amount of time between Joseph and Moses. This would have been similar to the generations of Israelite slaves who slowly forgot the God of Jacob as they sweat under the whips of the Pharaoh. This would be four hundred years of building a nation that isn’t their own and giving birth to slave children threatened by population control. Four hundred years in subjection to Egyptian gods, Egyptian rule, and Egyptian scorn with no word from God.

Malachi stops writing and the situations are similar. Israel never regains sovereignty from foreign nations and is swapped between the Gentile kingdoms of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Four hundred years—the excruciating pause before Incarnation.

From the barren places of the earth God sends a wild man. John the Baptist emerges—the voice of the nation’s remnant. As if the marginalized, abused presence of God in Israel was shaking with impatience John jumps out of the wilderness with a voice loud enough to be heard across the divide of four centuries. A voice so loud and direct that it could be heard through the span of history, from the ears of Moses to Elijah to the Jew under the Romans washing for repentance in the Jordan River. The spirit of the slain righteous shouts the culmination of their prophecies—the flesh blood reality of Emmanuel.

“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”

There he sits. We wait one season at a time as creation groans. We anticipate and suffer in silence. We light the candles and count out the years, knowing that when he comes, it will be exactly at the right time.

It Is All About Presence

You may have seen a recent commercial that talks about all the wonderful uses of a pencil, as the screen focuses on one while the background changes to thematically coordinate with the narrator’s descriptions. After a few shifts, the background remains still and a hand reaches down to grab the new iPad Air that was hidden behind the very thin pencil, and the commercial explains that Apple hopes you will find just as many uses for their product. The advertiser’s idea is to convince the customer that, as essential as a pencil has been to poems and symphonies and even doing various things in space, so is the iPad Air. The electronic tablet is professed to be the next revolutionary step in writing from the old pencil and paper.

The 21st century has opened with exciting advances in cyber technology that lead us to debate between physical and digital modes of information. If a company keeps all of its files in electronic media, whether hardware or the cloud, they have more space for physical items like office furniture, and can quickly access their information by a few keystrokes. However, should the hardware break down or the ethereal storage get hacked, that information is vulnerable and, even with backup, possibly irretrievable. So, hard copies are usually prudent for the cautious business owner, though even these are subject to physical damage or loss. One cannot afford to fully trust one way or the other, and so must maximize the benefits of both.

The question becomes more pointed if no significant resources are at stake. When it comes to books, we can carry an e-reader that is capable of providing a small library in the same space that one book would normally occupy. Since producing paper gives people concern for the shrinking global tree population, it would seem prudent to just skip the hassle of carrying bound volumes. Even the book lover’s complaint that e-readers ‘just aren’t the same’ is ringing less true year by year, as technology provides page turning, bookmarks, and generally paper-like screens. As online shopping led to Borders going out of business, so the digital format could replace the last few centuries’ tome, like a new Gutenberg press.

Yet even so, there is a strong reluctance for many to make that final jump— dare I say a faith that things like physical books still offer us something that cannot be replaced. What we lose in technology is the presence of that material we interact with, since cyberspace occupies no real space, and whether connecting with people or writing, they are presented to us via electric signals that are translated into text and picture, not as a corpus or body. The physical element is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and that’s fine where efficiency is necessary. Technology can give access to those materials when a physical interaction is not possible.

The problem is Americans have the innate assumption that perfect efficiency will make things easier and life better, so we hardly ever stop increasing speed at the expense of those precious bodily experiences. A digital library cannot be strolled, and no e-reader lets the pages flip past your fingers or gives you the smell of ink and old paper. If electronic stimuli can ever provide those experiences, the point will not be that it feels real, but if it is real. The point is we might be tempted to claim that technology is the peak of communication, as if it can do away with all the inefficiencies and unwanted side effects from tangible thought and corporeal contact.  

The heart of it all is that humans are not complicated data processors, but physical and spiritual beings. Whether in business or leisure, it is harmful for a society to consider ease and productivity as their highest goal, as the primary means of achieving the elusive pursuit of happiness. We need those messy, untimely moments where life is best lived, as well as finding methods to get more things done more quickly. We still need to be able to touch people, and to have their words actually inscribed and close, not just quickly projected and quickly removed. There is more to life than getting the most out of a service, or being preeminent at providing one. When the holidays are about looking for the best stuff at the best price, rather than finding the gifts that bring true joy to our loved ones, including spending time with them (if possible), then they won’t be so holly or jolly.

To be fair, companies are aware of this presence factor and often incorporate into their commercials the notion that their products liberate the customer to take care of those moments, unencumbered by inferior, less handy products. The struggle lies not in those who take stock of what people are like and then advertise accordingly; rather, it lies with the individual from whom commercialism ultimately flows. Having an iPad is great, so long as it doesn’t stand in for love of our neighbor. Focusing on the physical beings around us, not the digital or even physical benefits we expect from the gifting season, is to be more human and, we shall find, gives us actual joy. In the same tradition where God came down to be present with mankind on Christmas morn, we should take time to put aside the fleeting intangibles in favor of those presently with us, who make life complicated and material.

Image via Flickr.

The End of the Great Depression

“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time… I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, 12-15

The world of Ecclesiastes is old, stale, and hopeless. Solomon, husband of many wives, victor of many battles, possessor of great wealth, wonders if any of it is worth it. If the wise die in the same way as the foolish, if the rich suffer the same fate as the poor, if the good man fares the same as the evil man, why even make an effort? Even his last words carry the same sense of melancholy and hopelessness. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Fear God and obey him, because it is your duty: it will not help you in life, it may not help you in death, you will still die the same as an evil man… but it is your duty nonetheless.

And that was the end of the matter. There was nothing more to said, nothing more to be heard, because even the words of the wise were vain and meaningless.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A new star appeared in the heavens and a company of angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, because God had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and was lying in a manger. A living child had been born into a world of skeletons. Here, finally, was something new, something that that was not vanity and a chasing after the wind.

God was a child. He had friends, he played games with them, he skinned his knees, he was hungry and thirsty and tired. And then God grew up and was a man. He was sarcastic and biting towards some people and utterly kind and gentle towards others. He was enraged at the misuse of the temple and driven to tears by the death of a friend. He had friends and ate and drank and slept under the stars when he could have had an angelic canopy.

And as we think about these things we must remember one simple truth: God does not do meaningless things.

And this does not just apply to his “kingdom work.” The ultimate proof of this is his very first miracle in John 2, unplanned and spontaneous. This is evident from his response to Mary: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Such a response indicates that the forthcoming miracle has nothing to do with “his hour,” his primary purpose. But he does it anyway. He has the jars filled with water and by the time the first cup reached the master of the feast, it is no longer water but the finest wine that had yet been served.

God does not do meaningless things. There were any number of ways to make his disciples believe in him, if that was his only goal. There were many ways to demonstrate his power, his authority, his deity. He could have made the water disappear: he could have turned it into grape juice (as some Christians fervently wish he had). But instead he chose to turn it into wine, and not  just any wine; he turned it into the finest wine of the feast, wine so good that it made all the other wine pale in comparison. We must acknowledge this amazing truth: that God did something not just to further his mission, not just to make his disciples believe in him, but to help people celebrate a wedding with the best wine of the feast, the ultimate example of extravagance.

God does not do meaningless things. And that means that the world of Ecclesiastes is gone forever.

Because of Christmas, everything is no longer vanity and meaningless: instead, everything assumes a colossal importance. Even “neutral” things like eating or sleeping become full of meaning when we consider that God himself has done these things as well. When we eat, even a snack, we are reminded that God has done the same. When we sleep, we are reminded that God did too. When we attend a wedding, we remember that in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Life is full of meaning: I might even say full to bursting. Serving God is no longer a mere duty; it is instead a privilege, an honor, a gift, as we walk this new world and think of Christ taking his first steps in Bethlehem.

Your Christmas Viewing Guide

Wondering how best to wile away those hours of vacation time this Christmas? Hoping for some good family activities to help you all slow down and enjoy one another’s company? Look no further. The Examined Life’s Lindsay Marshall has some holiday movie tips, complete with suggested questions for group discussion:

I guess I have to call myself a true Californian if my Christmas doesn’t feel complete without a trip to Disneyland to see the fireworks.  When I was at Biola, my two best friends were my roommate Becca and my boyfriend (now my husband) Nate, and our favorite tradition was our first trip to see the Christmas fireworks on Main Street.  They used instrumental versions of hymns, the show was spectacular, and we just couldn’t help loving the “snow” that fell on Main Street to the strains of a soulful White Christmas.  Unfortunately, the whole thing was bookended by some pop star wailing an original song called “Remember the Magic.”  We used to laugh at the song’s vapidity, but there was always something sad about the empty sentimentality of what Disney clearly thought (and many people standing around us confirmed) could be a meaningful experience.

Upon further reflection, this empty sentiment is, in a small way, encouraging.  In a country that has taken the commercialization of Christmas to a level that would make even poor Linus despair, there’s still something about the holiday that affects people.  Beneath the toys, food, lights, and family gatherings, there’s something real about that day that we can’t drown out with shallow celebration.  Disney calls it magic, and that’s not too far off the mark.  C.S. Lewis called it Deep Magic in his Narnia chronicles, and there’s something mystical about the power of the hope the Incarnation can have, even on those who deny its existence.  In that sense, it was wrong of the three of us to laugh at Disney’s inadequate expression of that hope.  It’s easy to write it off as mere emotional manipulation, but there’s something of the groaning of Creation for her Savior in those hollow lyrics.  Our response should be to encourage a deeper pursuit of the Mystery, not to mock it.

To atone for years of failing to do that, Nate and I have compiled a list of classic and not-so-classic Christmas films for your viewing pleasure this season.  We hope that they lead you to a deeper contemplation of the Incarnation and its power to reach all those beings created in the Image of God.

Read the rest here, and let us know which movies you’d like to see added to this list.

(Image is from Flickr)