I attended Sunday morning church services at the Episcopalian church in high school and went to youth group at a non-denominational charismatic church on Wednesday evenings. Because I was young and stupid, I believed the Episcopalian services to be antiquated, lacking in beauty and resting on laurels of centuries-old traditions of liturgy, when they ought to be more like the non-denominational charismatic church, where each week brought a new worship song with loud guitars and pumping fists.
Now that I have a few more years under my belt and, indeed, now that I work for a non-denominational charismatic church as a worship leader, I am beginning to understand how misguided I was.
December in my church means Christmastime. We begin to incorporate Christmas songs (and particularly those featuring loud guitars and pumping fists) into services so that, when we finally get to the Christmas Eve service, the congregants will know- and be able to sing along with- all of them.
There is nothing wrong with this.
However, I find myself, as I do every Christmas season, weighed down by an unnamed and lingering disappointment. My friends tell me that it is because I am a Scrooge (and indeed, I probably am). They tell me it is because I don’t allow myself to be happy, to be joyful, to be enthused about Christmastime and the love and joy and gift-giving that comes with it. They tell me that there is good Christmas music out there, if I look hard enough. Sufjan Stevens released a new album this year. The “Holidays Rule” album has all kinds of wonderful artists singing great songs. So, I oblige them. I try. (Really, I do.) I listened to “Holidays Rule”. I heard the Punch Brothers sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (it was beautiful) and The Shins cover Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (it was weird).
But The Shins (well, Paul McCartney, actually) may have helped me to pin down what’s really troubling me.
“Wonderful Christmastime” is an impossibly catchy three minutes and thirty-some-odd seconds. I have grown up with it and know the lyrics by knee-jerk reaction. By all accounts (musically, melodically and commercially), it is a first-rate song. Paul McCartney could write a song (and probably has) about a bowel movement and make it a hit. I listened to the song- and I mean really listened. I sat down with it. I wasn’t checking my email or looking up the latest news from the baseball winter meetings. I just listened.
The song is about a party. People are gathered and having a good time. The “mood is right” and “that’s enough”. There isn’t a single mention of Jesus and His Birth or Coming.
They’re “simply having a wonderful Christmastime”.
Christians (and particularly FoxNews) have a real problem with the word Christmas being taken away from most public spheres. They rant and rave and rail about the loss of the Christmas Tree and the Christmas wreaths, etc. They’re angry that they can’t just wish people a “Merry Christmas”, but instead must remember that there is also a Happy Kwanza, a Happy Hanukkah and even a Merry Festivus. “Happy Holidays” isn’t something they’re willing to go along with.
After all, this is a Christian nation, dammit.
Christians (and FoxNews) are wrong. Christmas- at least in the contemporary sensibility- was never and will never be about Jesus. It may carry His Name and might even pay homage to Him and His Birth, but Christmas has long since forgotten what it is about and why it began. It has become loud guitars and holiday albums made for quick career boosts (and/or resuscitations). It has become Starbucks Christmas cups that will fill city street trash cans for the rest of the month. It has become FoxNews pumping its fist and banging on the anchor desk about how our nation has “forgotten the principles it was founded upon”.
I don’t want Christmas. I want Advent.
I want the season whose mantra is “Come Lord Jesus”- not “Come Baby Jesus” and certainly not, “Come Lord Black Friday”. I don’t want to have a “wonderful Christmastime”. Instead, I want, as Father Richard Rohr writes, “to live out a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves“. He goes on to say that Advent is a season of expectation and that it creates in each of us an awareness of something much greater than ourselves and our own fulfillment- it is the antithesis of our current understanding of Christmas, whether in or out of church.
So yes, cheesy Christmas sweatshirt, ‘Jesus IS the reason for the season’- but perhaps not the one you’re thinking of and not the one that I’d prefer.
Dear Reader- I did not at all intend to write this. It began as a very short post on my Tumblr account, but very quickly became what you’ve just read. Please forgive my piousness and self-righteousness. It is easy for me to rant against Christmas and what it stands for/has become and far more difficult to actually change my expectations, understandings of and relationship with the season.
Though I would like to believe otherwise, I am not immune to the draws of consumerism, huge sales and Starbucks. I would like to be, but I am not. Please do not take my words on Advent as truth. I am nowhere near as knowledgable as I would like to be, but I intend to change that post-haste. I arrived at the Richard Rohr quote here and it (probably) makes more sense contextualized than not.
Finally, please recognize the irony of this piece in that I became inspired to write it as I read the Young Oceans blog and listened to their ‘Advent’ album that I purchased this morning (which, it ought to be said, is exceedingly good).
Again, I wish that I was immune, but I am not. Forgive me, O Lord, a sinner. -c.