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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christmas and Other Lost Causes

I live in Richmond, Virginia -- the Capital of the Confederacy. You can't travel far without reminders of the Lost Cause, which appear primarily on the rear windows and tailgates of pickup trucks. "Forget, Hell," "Heritage, Not Hate," and other stickers and paintings featuring the Confederate battle flag are easily found. One of the more astonishing artistic representations recently staring me in the face was a tailgate with a United States flag on the left blending into a Confederate flag on the right (merely ironic positioning?) overlaid with the words "One Nation Under God." Evidently the artist and/or owner didn't learn in 8th grade U.S. History that the whole point of the Confederacy was
not to have "One Nation Under God."
Shortly after my middle child, Drew, moved into his first-year dorm room at the University of Virginia, his roommate's girlfriend, a devoted acolyte of the Lost Cause, engaged him in an argument about some aspect of southern culture or history. "Well," she drawled, "ah can tell you're not from the South." "Honeychile," Drew responded in his most theatrical drawl, "ah was born right heah in lil' ol' Charlottesville, and the South still lost the war."
I'm a child of the sixties, so I know about Lost Causes. I also know about them because I've been a United Methodist clergyman for thirty-five years. That combination -- the sixties and the clergy -- is lethal. There were oh so many things about the church, the nation, the world, and the cosmos that my peers and I were going to fix thirty-five years ago. Peace would come. The environment would be saved. Poverty would end. Racism would be erased. Economic injustice would disappear. The bondage of the Christian Church to the culture would evaporate. All this would happen when we explained in our sermons to our congregations the way things were really supposed to be. Parishioners would slap themselves in the head and exclaim, "Why, of course! Why didn't anyone explain this to us before? What must we do to be saved?" And then, in weekly reenactments of the Day of Pentecost, each of us would baptize three thousand converts who would devote themselves to our preaching and teaching, the breaking of bread and prayers, and live in shared economic community.
Call me jaded. Call me honest, but I don't think it's going to happen. And, in some places, I think it might be well for the Church to just surrender and go home. We've lost the war, and it's absurd for us to keep fighting what is clearly a Lost Cause: Christmas.
If you get clergy to talk honestly -- no mean feat -- many, perhaps most of us, will tell you that we hate Christmas. There's the annual gymnastic of trying to find something new to say about the baby. There's the annual tug of war with musicians and congregation about how soon in Advent we start singing Christmas carols, and with Altar Guilds about when to decorate, and when to de-decorate. There's the preparation for three, four, five or more worship services on Christmas Eve. There's the septennial question when Christmas Day falls on Sunday: "Are we going to have Church? (my favorite answer: "Heavens, we wouldn't want religion to interfere with Christmas!")"
Then there are the historical problems with Christmas: that Jesus was probably born in the spring, which is when shepherds would have been abiding in their fields; that December 25 is almost surely the baptism of a pagan winter solstice celebration; not to mention historical/critical/theological issues with virgin births and Eastern astrologers and Bethlehem and who knows what else. For the record, I don't have problems with the birth narratives: any God who can create a Universe, whether in six billion years or six seconds, can author a miraculous conception or birth. On the other hand, were a DNA analysis of blood traces from a piece of the True Cross to reveal Joseph's DNA, or if archaeologists found Jesus' birth certificate listing Nazareth as "Place of Birth," Jesus would still be my Messiah because of the Resurrection. St. Paul and I agree on that one.
No, Christmas is a Lost Cause because the baby is not "The Reason for the Season," as so many Christians want to remind us. The baby is the excuse. Let's tell it like it is: Christmas in this culture is about an orgy of spending and consuming. It's about greed. We tell ourselves that we're giving each other gifts as an re-enactment of the gifts of the Magi, but that's nonsense. If it's Jesus' birthday, why do we give gifts to each other? If it's Jesus' birthday, how can we answer the question "What do you want for Christmas?" with anything other than "Peace on earth, good will to all?"
I used to believe that by providing alternatives, I could bend Christians away from the orgy and towards something simpler, gentler, quieter, and more faithful. I tried, for years and years and years. This year something in me snapped. Or maybe it died. I think it was when I read a facebook post from a young mother looking for good used toys for her children so they could have a good Christmas. She wasn't thinking about what she and her family could make together, or do together. She wasn't asking about the memories they could create. She wanted to know where to find used toys, because, after all, that IS what it's all about.
About ten years ago a terrific ice storm hit Virginia on Christmas Eve. We cancelled church, the power lines went down, and families huddled together in front of fireplaces. One of my parishioners told me that he and his family all gathered under a quilt by the fire, told each other stories, and sang carols. "It was the most wonderful Christmas we've ever had," he said. And the next year he loaded down his car with junk from WalMart for his family to open on Christmas Day.
I am Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. I surrender. We've lost the war. Christmas is not a Christian holiday. It's Super Bowl Sunday, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. There's a proof-text for us to use for the day, but it's only an excuse. Oh, I'll preach this Sunday, and every Sunday in Advent, about how this is a penitential season when we need to clear out our hearts and lives and homes to make room for Something New to be born in us. But I know it's not going to happen. I am Isaiah, preaching to people who will not hear. I am Jeremiah, prophesying to people whose hearts and debts have grown fat. But I know that we have lost the Christmas War. WalMart and Toys R Us and Kay Jewelers and their kith have won. I'll preach on Christmas Eve about the miracle of incarnation, knowing that the crowds in the pews don't believe for a minute that the gift in the manger is all the gift they need.
Yes, our church will be feeding and housing the homeless Christmas Week. Yes, we will have filled dozens of shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child so when we open our presents we won't feel quite so bad about poor children elsewhere. Yes, we will have sent gifts to families of the incarcerated, and paid utility and food bills for the needy in our community. We do lots of good things, and God smiles. But we've lost the Christmas War. It's not our holiday any more, if it ever was.
So, somewhere the week after the orgy, I'm going to go outside in the middle of the cold December night. The Christmas texts, as Wendell Berry says about the whole Bible, are hypaethral: meant to be read under the open sky. I will read the story again by firelight, artificial or natural, and try to feel what it was like on a hillside pasture. I will breathe deep the modern aromas of the little tool shed in my yard -- the best manger I have to offer. I will look up into the night sky at the Pleiades, and imagine an army of angels exploding from them. And, if I am really, really blessed, the baby will be all the Christmas I ever want.

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