Suffering Each Other at Christmas

There is perhaps nothing I like less over Christmas than hearing “Happy Christmas” by John Lennon. I dislike this because it is about a world where war is inconceivable because love is inconceivable. This having been said, it is not as if Lennon is speaking outside longstanding Christian tradition. From the angels’ declaration, through Milton’s nativity ode, through Tennyson’s pallid ” I heard the bells on Christmas day,” the theme of peace resonates through Christendom and its remnants. But the perennial questions remain, “What do we mean by such peace in a world torn by war and pain? And if we are to seek peace, how are we to avoid the flaccid and nihilistic peace of thinkers like Lennon.

I have been thinking a lot about these questions while reading Hauerwas’s new book, “War and the American Difference.” According to Hauerwas, war is the liturgy that dictates the ethos of nation states, particularly the U. S. But Hauerwas’s response to this is not that we should stop caring about things enough to kill and die for them; rather we need enough Christlikeness to be patient in the Latinate sense – suffering each other rather than solving things by killing each other.

It is a fitting message for us at a time when we traditionally gather around tables with people we may not like or get along with; Christmas peace must mean graciously suffering their presence; and even more, it means permitting them to suffer ours. Hence, I wish you all a peaceful Christmas, in the most dynamic sense of the word.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Advent Reflections: The Gift of Breath

As an Anglo-Saxonist, I am keenly aware of the way that the transfer of gifts reflects the norms that underlie a society. And so I got thinking about what the way we do gift-giving might tell us about ourselves. In particular, gift-giving is oriented toward the receiver rather than both parties. In a book I have been reading recently, Stanley Hauerwas suggests that the American myth of democracy is that we are living out the narrative we would have chosen had we freely chosen it prior to entering the narrative of history — we reject the given-ness of things. Analogously, it seems to me that, when we buy gifts, we buy them in the hope that they are what the other person would have bought had she bought them herself — we try as far as possible to remove any surprise or potential awkwardness associated with the “given-ness” of a surprise gift – and we ratify this by considering it socially acceptable to return or exchange gifts to get what we actually want. And I wonder how this might affect our theology; in particular, I wonder if our cultural practice of gift giving does not make it more difficult to accept the given-ness of the world God has given us. To be sure, there has always been the problem of evil in the world, the question of how the presence of evil can be reconciled with this given-ness if God is good. But I wonder if our gift giving practices don’t tend to diminish the problem of evil into a problem of spoiled creatures. Even if they don’t ultimately agree with him, the most devout person, I think, can feel some sympathy with Ivan Karamazov when he wants to return his ticket to the universe in the face of all its evil. But I wonder how many of those wanting to return their tickets nowadays are really of the cast of Ivan — I fear that they are simply model consumers, ready to return the gift of creation because it doesn’t cater to their every whim.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Zechariah, Father of John and John

Advent Reflections: That Mourns in Lonely Exile Here

John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Veneto 16th century

There is a part of us that avoids exile; there is another part of us that is attracted to it. We are attracted to it because it has a way of shattering our illusions. As Jesus puts it in yesterday’s Advent reading, people did not go out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist on account of his fashion sense or because he was society’s yes-man — they went out because he was a prophet and would, much like the harsh wilderness, destroy their illusions without mercy. We like this because it is something we spiritually need, but we should beware lest such things become a spiritual high that offers variation from our otherwise selfish lives. The real question is not whether we went to the desert to see him, but whether our hearts are still in sympathy with his when his head is on a platter.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: The Gift of Breath

Advent Reflections: Gaudete, or Throwing Ourselves in the Way of an Oncoming Joy

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day set aside for emphasizing the more joyful aspects of apocalypse and Christ’s return. The name comes from the Latin opening of one of the readings for the day, “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice.” It is the reason we light a pink candle today for the Advent wreath.

“Gaudete,” for me, is a hard saying; I am not good at rejoicing. But I would like to share today some of what I have learned about joy as I have wrestled with it over the years. I have encountered in churches an interpretation of joy that means suppressing any pain or sadness in a Thomas Kinkade-like fashion; from the start, I knew that either this was not joy, or I could not be a Christian – depression teaches that to a person. A more helpful (though not perfect) understanding of joy was that joy is a decision; it is not simply happy feelings, but a chosen orientation toward God and his universe. This made sense to me; I could not feel, but could choose. But I have come to see that, from a Christian perspective, there is a problem with this perspective as well.

The problem is in its individualism; we — and particularly we who are depressed — are often too emotionally and cognitively weak to set our faces like flint toward joy; simply “willing harder” when one finds oneself joyless is a matter of setting oneself up for frustration. That is why I am so happy for the Christian liturgy. The liturgy is among other things the communal commemoration of the joy we look to in Christ. Joy, I have found, is not a matter of suppressing things, nor is it a matter of willing harder; it is an act of throwing oneself in the way of a community, the church, that carries on the legacy of Christ’s hope and joy even when few of its individual members may feel it personally. This is of course an act of faith because we many times have to trust in the vicarious joy of other Christians past, present, and future, when we can’t feel it ourselves – it is throwing ourselves in the way of what we hope for. So, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, I can say “gaudete” in faith that God will bring it about, even when I can neither feel nor will it for myself.

Advent Reflections: Dickens vs. Capra

For me, there are two classic films that epitomize the Christmas season: It’s a Wonderful Life, and the Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. You should go out and watch them both. But for the moment, I would like to compare them and suggest that the Christmas Carol is more Christian than Wonderful Life. Neither of course tells the Christmas story directly, but I think the Christmas Carol is the better parable. To be sure, the idea suggested in Wonderful Life, that God puts certain people in certain places to do certain things, is very Christian. What worries me, though, is that we are invited to empathize and implicitly compare ourselves to George Bailey — not a perfect man, but decent overall with his heart in the right place — the quintessential American everyman. The question I would like to pose, though, is, “What about Potter, the film’s tyrant?” Imagine the film turned upside down, with the angel allowing us to imagine a world without Potter. If George Bailey is kept from suicide by the recognition that he has done so many good things, would the converse be true — that Potter would be justified in suicide because the world would be better off without him? It seems that in the world of Wonderful Life, there is no salvation for men like Potter. This is where Dickens offers us answers. Scrooge is like Potter. And in his glimpse into the future, people are quite happy when he dies. Yet the point of the movie is not that the world would be better off without him, but rather that by sheer grace there is hope for a grasping covetous old sinner like Scrooge. He comments at the end of the film that he doesn’t deserve to be so happy, and this is the theological crux of the matter. None of us grasping covetous old Potter-like people deserve to be so happy — but by God’s grace we can be. We are, like Scrooge, given another chance.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Gaudete, or Throwing Ourselves in the Way of an Oncoming Joy

Advent Reflections: Seasonal Commercialism

One of the most popular of Christmas traditions is critiquing its commercialism. Yet I worry that many of us in our hipster self-righteousness throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. I read an article suggesting that the problem with advertising is not the human desires it appeals to, but the distortions thereof. And I worry that some of us forget this in our more cynical than thou approaches to Christmas. Christmas in both its high and more vulgar forms appeals to certain basic human needs and desires, but I worry that many of us, in rejecting sentimentalism, also reject sentiment itself — we conceive of ourselves as too good for that. Such pride is far worse than sentimentalism, and we must bear in mind that not all critiques of Christmas commercialization are good critiques — it is after all Scrooge and not Cratchit who calls Christmas a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Dickens vs. Capra

Advent Reflections: Christmas with Dido

The Christmas and Advent art I find myself most attracted to is the bittersweet kind. In terms of hymns, the more obvious of these include songs such as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” But for this post I would like to talk about a secular song, “Christmas Day,” by Dido. Given my prior posts, some of you may be surprised that I like this song; it is about an inexplicably broken promise of betrothal that was supposed to be fulfilled on Christmas day, and it concludes with the words:

And the last words
I heard him say
Were the last words
I ever
Heard him say

I shall return,
For you,
My love
On Christmas Day

On a surface reading, one might presume that this song is a veiled allegorical critique suggesting that God has failed to fulfill his promises to humans. I don’t know if this is what the writer intended, but, regardless, I think there is a different way of reading it. Part of recognizing the hope of God’s promise very often begins with the recognition that all other promises fail, and His is the only one we can turn to; I think not only of Ecclesiastes, but also of The Wanderer, an Old English poem that uses the failure of earthly things to pique the speaker’s desire for heaven. And the Christmas story is full of broken promises; it implicitly contrasts the holy peace brought by Christ with the more duplicitous Augustan “Pax” Romana. Even closer to the heart of the Biblical story, we encounter an Israel so corrupt that Mary, Joseph, and the baby have to flee to Egypt for safety — fleeing from the promised land to Egypt is a reversal of the Exodus story, a testament to Israel’s failure to keep the Old Testament covenant. So the wonder of God’s promise is made all the more poignant against the backdrop of so many broken human covenants, and it is perfectly appropriate to acknowledge such broken covenants in Christmas songs like Dido’s — or, for that matter, the old medieval carol with which we open Advent, “Adam lay ybounden.”

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Seasonal Commercialism

 

Advent Reflections: Nunc Dimittis

One of the things that inevitably happens during this season is exhaustion from frantic over-scheduling and errands, and while it would be convenient to blame this wholly on secular society, I fear that many Christian churches, with all their Christmas programs etc., may also lurk behind this desert-like paucity of contemplative space. I have been feeling this, and it reminded me of Simeon’s prayer after he has seen the Christ, the Messiah he has waited for his whole life: “Lord, now may your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” I thought of this passage because the promise of departing in peace is particularly attractive in the midst of the current frantic hubbub. Indeed, it would seem that the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer thought so as well, as this prayer is included in Compline, the set of prayers one prays before bed; its inclusion signifies that it is not simply a prayer for those about to die, but also those about to undertake that smaller type of death, sleep. I have done much academic work on the Christian ars moriendi (art of dying well), but I have never before been struck by the way this might also apply to the way we end each day. What is particularly significant for me at the moment is how much the act of resting in peace depends on the recognition that it is Christ rather than us who brings about salvation for the world — we are witnesses, and witnesses who testify, but the burden of the world’s salvation is on God’s shoulders, not ours. This allows us to trust in the goodness of God rather than running around frantically trying to facilitate everything ourselves; I think sometimes we get so busy trying to save the world that we forget God has already done so.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Christmas with Dido

 

Advent Reflections: Happy Feast Day of St. Nicholas

Yes, it is the feast day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus; indeed, there are still remnants of him in the modern representation of Santa Claus – Santa wears red because that is the color that Nicholas, being a Bishop, would have worn.

What you may not know about St. Nicholas is that he was an adamant defender of Trinitarian Christianity. One of the stories about him is that he was so offended by Arius at the council of Nicea that he boxed his ears! While such a response might seem odd by modern standards, I think the incident may help remind us of the importance of this doctrine. According to Arthur C. McGill, the primary issue between Arius and the trinitarians was whether God was a disinterested God of power or a God of love. For Arius, God was too holy to become directly involved in human affairs, so Christ had to be a creature rather than God himself. However, for the trinitarians, God’s divinity was defined by love rather than naked power or detachment, and so it was possible to conceive of a God who not only would give his very self to his creation, but who would exist in an eternally dynamic trinity in which each member gives of himself to the others. We might be disturbed by the violence of Santa Claus against Arius, but we should be more disturbed by the thing that caused St. Nicholas to do it, for if people become like the God they serve, Arius’s God of detached and naked power surely results in societal violence much more disturbing than a box on the ears. This Christmas, Santa Claus gave me a loving trinitarian God; what is he giving you?

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Nunc Dimittis

Advent Reflections: Peace on Earth

Led a Bible study on Advent tonight, and was struck in the BCP Advent passages by the episode where Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers in the temple because he is angry that it is a den of robbers rather than a house of prayer. It made me realize the violence that might be necessary in our own lives if we are to set aside spaces but even more particularly times for prayer. Unless we actively clear spaces and times for prayer — holy ground, so to speak — we will be mastered by our schedules. Prayer does not simply happen on its own, and so we discover the odd paradox that in order to undertake the most contemplative of Christian practices, we must have the temples of our hearts purged by the active wrath of Christ that spares no idolatry. It reminds me a little of Milton’s poem on the nativity. I recall an uncharitable critic dismissing it as a poem presenting Christ as a baby Hercules turfing the usurping demonic “gods” out of all their kingdoms. The critic may have disliked this, but the image is not unapt. The message of Christmas may be peace on earth, but it is not peace as the world gives peace — indeed, it may, as John the Baptist prophesies, be a baptism by the fire of God’s wrath against anything that would wrest our hearts from Him.

For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.

Next in the series: Happy Feast Day of St. Nicholas