They say that “confession is good for the soul,” so let me make my confession to you. I must confess that for a few moments this week, I was assaulted by an almost irresistible temptation. I was possessed by the beguiling impulse to write a “traditional” Christmas message.
Well, let me tell you, I did not – I repeat – did not yield to that temptation! I must add how grateful I am that this fever left me almost as quickly as it came upon me. I realize now as I write this that I could not possibly have pulled it off.
A “traditional” Christmas message? What is that, you ask?
Well, be assured that it does not have a thing to do with stars in the sky, or angelic choruses, or shepherds on the hillside, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you think that those are the elements in the “traditional” Christmas message, you are a generation behind. I have read and/or heard too many contemporary “traditional” Christmas messages to know that none of those elements ever gets mentioned.
An article in one of the leading church magazines states: “These elements of the Christmas story are the Sunday School picture part, the elements of the romantic tale. . .” The article goes on to say that we Americans do not think in terms of kings, or angels, or Magi. These terms are dead to those who live in the age of the astronaut, the microchip, and the word processor. It is simply bad faith and pious dishonesty to obscure the reality of Jesus the Christ by celebrating his birth in this way.
The “traditional” Christmas message? Let me tell you about it.
Those writers who write such “traditional” messages usually begin by taking a stern look over the territory. They then set their pens or computers in their most pious stance and proceed to make everyone feel like lecherous, pagan libertines who have dragged the Feast of the Nativity down into the mire of a commercialized, a sentimentalized, and a sensualized festival of greed, debauchery and desire. I believe that you can see the direction that the “traditional” Christmas message takes.
Having established the thesis in the introduction, the prosecution then proceeds to pile up the damning evidence along several time-honored themes.
First, there is the theme of commercialism with which to deal. The reader is confronted by the staggering and soul-shaking evidence that the bill for this year’s Christmas spending will exceed 465 billion dollars! And please note, you will be told, that this figure excludes the extra charge on you electric bill for burning those ludicrous lights on that decorated Christmas tree! If that money were spent entirely on US made products it would create 4.6 million jobs. But it does not even have to be that big. If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs.
And then the gifts will be run down. Everything will be mentioned from the solid gold toothpick and the air-conditioned doghouse to the offering of a $700,000 week at three estates in the English countryside, including a helicopter trip to Alnwick castle. And for the more frugal, there is a modest $30,000 price tag for a walk-on role on Broadway’s Waitress musical. And then, perhaps to increase our cynicism, some writers will even throw in the story of the department store Santa Claus who was arrested for shoplifting.
Some years ago, Mad Magazine, in its usual irreverent look at humankind, reported what might be typical dialogues between people who receive Christmas gifts.
For example, there is the wife who opens a gift from her husband and exclaims: “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” And the husband responds: “Well, at least we agree on something.”
Or, there is the young girl who receives a gift from a young boy and says: “I’m not that kind of a girl!’ And the young boy responds: “Don’t worry; it’s not that kind of a gift.”
Or, there is the woman who gives a man a garish tie and says: “Wear it in good health.” And the man responds: “I’m sick already, just looking at it.”
You see, this is what you get for commercializing Christmas!
But the “traditional” Christmas message is not yet finished. There is a second theme: a discussion of the irony of the message of peace on earth and the way that the world really is. In the “traditional” Christmas message, you will be reminded that since the United Nations, an organization dedicated to the idea of saving humankind from the scourge of war, was organized over sixty years ago, we have not had one year in all that time without a war, or a rebellion, or a revolution, or civil strife. And what about the present threats of terrorism and Lord knows what else, to say nothing of the carnage that occurs in schools, businesses across this land, and on the streets of almost every American city. What a travesty it is, the writer will tell you, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace in the midst of all this conflict.
And then, as if this were not enough, a third barrage is launched. The writer will observe that we are going to be feasting during this holiday season, and filling our already overstuffed stomachs with more of the rich foods that we really do not need. The point here is that it is hard to share the spirit of joy and peace when we realize that one-half of the people living in the world today will go to bed hungry tonight. So, go home, the writer of the “traditional” Christmas message will tell you, yes, go home and enjoy your Christmas dinner – if you can!
Well, I am sorry, but I just could not write such a “traditional” Christmas message!
It is to all of these redundant, cliché-ridden, hashed over, contemporary concerns for our desecrated and destroyed Christmas; to all of these inane platitudes that people speak as though they have just had a marvelous intellectual discovery that I say, “Hogwash!” and “Unadulterated balderdash!” And I will go even further, and repeat that wonderful, good old-fashioned American four-letter word uttered by Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge when the German commander, Lt. Gen. Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz, asked him to surrender – “NUTS!”
So, we twentieth century Christians have spoiled Christmas, have we? What utter and absolute nonsense! Since when did Christmas depend upon us? Humankind did not plan Christmas, was not even ready for it, and did not accept it when it did come.
If we are spoiling Christmas today, think of who spoiled that first Christmas. The Sanhedrin called no special session to announce the birth of a savior. King Herod arranged no diplomatic reception. Caesar Augustus ordered no forty-eight-hour cease-fire. The shoppers in the Bethlehem bazaar did not pause in their trading to listen to the angels sing. There were no special services in the temple. There were no gifts exchanged. In fact, the first gifts came nearly two years later, and then, from the hands of foreign astrologers. The streets of Bethlehem were crowded with people, but they were not there to buy gifts of love. They were there to be counted, to be enrolled, and ultimately, to be taxed. Angels filled the sky with music, but only a few lowly shepherds heard it.
But – and note this well – none of this lack of response stopped the coming of the Christ! For, as Paul reminds us, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4: 4-5) whether humankind was ready or not.
Here are the simple ingredients of the Christmas story: a helpless baby, a brutal adversary, and a protecting angel. And yet, in these ingredients are the essential facts of life. The Holy One of God came into the world as a fragile baby, and against that baby were arrayed all of the formidable powers of darkness for an unequal battle against an irresistible force. And so, each year, that irresistible force saves our Christmas for us.
We are going to destroy Christmas with rampant commercialism?
With frenzied partying?
With uncontrolled gift giving?
With immoderate spending?
With festering troubles in the world?
We are going to destroy Christmas? Ha! Go ahead and try. Be my guest. Not even old Ebenezer Scrooge could destroy Christmas!
And that truth is cause for our rejoicing. Christmas can never be destroyed!
So, tonight, or whenever it is convenient, in the circle of love that is your family and friends, rejoice. Rejoice in the knowledge that God cared enough to send his very best (with apologies to Hallmark cards) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejoice, for that is what we should do.
That is really what I want to say to you this Christmas. And, whew! Am I glad that I did not write that “traditional” Christmas message!