Exorcising The Christmas Spirit with the Gospel


At my house, Christmas music begins to play sometime in the middle or early part of November.  If you’ve ever listened to Christmas radio stations, you know that they play the same songs over and over and over and over and over again. 

 

And then they play them a few more times.

 

It isn’t yet Thanksgiving, but I’ve already heard Wham!’s “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” at least five times. This is perhaps the only song of Wham’s oeuvre which still emerges from the mists of the early 80’s to remind us of those, by comparison to today, almost Victorian times when George Michael was still into women and when pop stars didn’t come out of the closet.

 

I think that’s probably a big part of the reason why people who like holiday music like holiday music, just as it’s probably part of the reason why people who have never lived in the country like the formulaic Chevy-truck-ad jingles that comprise most of what’s played on country-music (so-called) radio stations.  People like it, at least in part, because it makes them feel safe.

 

Christmas begins about the same time in my house that it does in much of the United States—following hard upon Halloween.  Both holidays were once Christian holy days, to whatever degree they may have been reappropriated from pagans.

 

In America they are pagan holidays again, although I think Samhain (isn’t that what the Wiccans call it?), Yule, and Saturnalia would be more enjoyable.  What offends me about American subversions of Christian holidays—American re-paganization—is the awful aesthetics.  Some of my aversion to “Christmas” in America arises from the way that the mystery and the miracle of the incarnation of God is obscured. 

But mostly it’s just elitism. 

 

I’ve hated American consumerism since I was a kid.  It blights the mind, soul, and imagination by constantly making available (for a price) whatever is convenient and easily digestible.  In its wake it leaves mind-numbingly ugly and boring places to live.  It destroys all sense of the sacred.  It creates soft minds and shrunken souls. 

 

But my elitism really is an impediment when it comes to being a pastor. I don’t want to be superior or right; I want to teach Christians how the Church’s preparation for the birth of Jesus ought to be very different from the cheap consolation provided by American “Christmas.” 

 

Cheap consolation is really the enemy in almost every case when liturgical pastors and pastors wanting to teach the doctrine of Evangelical Lutheran Church run into resistance from popular piety.  American pop Christianity sells because people want to feel good and safe and because it’s easy to understand.  Sometimes people turn to it because they are suffering and they need answers immediately.  Other times people turn to it because it permits them to indulge themselves with the illusion that the solution to the suffering we endure as a result of living in a collapsing world  is to go back to the simple answers about God we really always knew and from which we were never far. 

American “Christmas”and its associated rituals—holiday music beginning in November, flagrant overspending, Christmas carol singing in Advent and parties in school, church, work all through December, overeating and overdrinking–all the Christmasy things that enable us to avoid honest appraisal of our selves, our lives, the way our society is going, and numb ourselves into a syrupy, sentimental glow—is almost exactly like American Christianity.

But here is where pastors and hearers who know something of the value of the pure teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments and the liturgy and hymnody of the Church fail.  American “Christianity” and American “Christmas” is democratic, and we are too often elitists.  American “Christmas” isn’t supercilious toward people who just want to feel safe and good. It embraces them.

 

 A lot of people believe that if they really like a song by Elvis, nobody can tell them that Bach’s music is simply better.  So if they hear Joel Osteen preach and understand him, they also think that no one can tell them that a sermon by Chrysostom or Luther is simply better either. 

American “Christmas” and American “Christianity” accept this reality in people and cater to it.  But not only do I not cater to it—I despise it and have almost zero patience when people expect me to do the same thing.  Lacking patience and love toward people who don’t immediately respond to real Christianity and real Christmas is not a Christian virtue.  Harboring anger and resentment toward Lutherans who are stubborn in adhering to bad teaching and traditions flowing from that teaching–whether out of snobbery or  out of anger–is grave sin.  With this anger we make the Gospel noxious because we smear it with the scent of our own pride.  Particularly pastors.  When I get mad because I’m trying to teach God’s Word purely and you’re not listening, I’m really mad because you’re not respecting me or listening to me.  And that is to use the ministry of the Gospel which Christ instituted for the salvation of sinners as a means of exalting myself.

 
Jesus preached and taught to the masses; He didn’t tickle ears, but taught the Word of God in a way that was accessible to normal people–not only the great.  He was patient and continued to teach even when He met with opposition and mistreatment.  Luther preached to and taught the masses.  He sought to elevate them—that’s why the Reformation went hand in hand with a renewal of education.  But he also taught; patiently, bearing with the people, serving them and caring enough to be understood by them.   

I’ve failed consistently in this way.  It’s not that I didn’t teach, but that I became angry and afraid when people didn’t get it or didn’t appear to want to get it.  On the one hand there is fear because you want to be a good pastor, be faithful to Christ, serve the people.  On the other hand there is simply sin and profanation of God’s Name and Word.  There was my desire to be honored that trumped any other desire–whether to love and serve the congregation or to love and serve Christ.  I was unwilling to bear with unjust criticism without snapping at my critics. At other times I’ve reacted to criticism that I thought was unjust with anger or defensiveness, later realizing that I was wrong, that I was failing to properly divide law and gospel, and I needed to be opposed. 

 

Lutherans also have to be democratic in the sense that we are willing to teach God’s Word—slowly, patiently, consistently—and bear with people.  That is the way that Jesus was democratic.  He loved the people.  So He was willing to teach them–the eternal Son–even when they wouldn’t hear Him and when they dishonored Him.  Love means patiently teaching and listening to criticism and learning slowly, over time, where you are not being understood.  So often people embrace false teaching, or bad traditions, because they are scared or because they feel stupid and the false teaching relieves the feelings of stupidity by addressing people where they are. 

 

Then a guy like me comes in, teaches for awhile, receives flak, and very quickly begins responding in anger to the people.  And is it any surprise if people then run to preachers (or to religious practices) that make them feel safe, that feel familiar?  Is it surprising if people go to a pastor who is nice and acts like he loves them [even though he is a wolf], instead of to the one who comes to change everything and says, “You are doing it wrong”, and reacts with harshness and arrogance when they don’t immediately listen?  In trying to roll back American Christmas in Lutheran churches so that we can once again observe Advent, there will be the inevitable conflict.  People will say it’s “too catholic.”  Probably one of the best ways we can observe Advent is to try to fast and repent of  haughty and angry defensiveness, and show kindness, patience, and love to people who haven’t yet experienced the blessing of preparing for the mystery of Christ’s birth through Advent.  Really, it’s not something to get angry about, but to have pity about, that lots of people would prefer to sing Christmas Carols for a month and haven’t developed a taste for the rich gospel we have in so many Lutheran Advent hymns.

 

I’m grateful for my beautiful wife and son and for the opportunity they give me to practice not being a jerk about American Christmas in Advent.  I am thankful for the opportunity to learn to  lead our family, graciously, into the gift of observing Advent with its call to repentance, faith, and willing obedience to Christ. 

 

In long gone times there were outward, physical disciplines associated with repentance, faith, and renewal.  Self-examination and confession and fasting went with repentance.  Attending Advent services midweek meant giving one’s attention to Christ’s Word, which works in contrite hearts the faith that our sins, from which we cannot free ourselves, have been blotted out by the suffering and death of the baby of Mary.  And where this faith is, there is joyful giving from a new and glad and confident heart.  So Christians practiced almsgiving.  Instead of buying family huge, extravagant gifts, they gave to the poor.  This is the way I want to learn to spend Advent with my family.  But that is a lot harder than simply trashing American consumerist “Christmas” and its associated rites, such as having to listen to “Feliz Navidad” for a month and a half.  As annoying as that is.  It takes doing it myself, and then walking with them into it.  Not just giving orders.

I wrote an article for the church newsletter trying to explain the importance of Advent and why we don’t immediately start singing Christmas hymns in church in December.  And I also tried to point out why it would be better if during Advent the Church behaved differently from the world, and instead of the church calendar filling up in December with Christmas parties (during Advent), we should consciously reject the way the world tries to greet the miracle of Jesus’ birth not by “making straight the way of the Lord” but by bombarding ourselves with things designed to arouse “the proper Christmas spirit”.  I don’t know whether the article will succeed as a gracious attempt to teach the gifts of Advent or whether it will be one more instance of making people feel dumb and then wondering why they reject what you say.  I’ll post it on here shortly.


Our society really need this witness from the Church in Advent.  But it will never happen if those who understand the gift of Advent don’t love people enough to teach patiently and bear with people when they don’t get it or reject it.  So I hope that God will teach me and sinners like me to love and serve our brothers and show the value of pure doctrine and the church’s liturgy by demonstrating the love and patience that come from the Gospel.  Then maybe they could hear that we are truly safe in Him—not in the false comfort that comes from avoiding penitence, but in the true comfort given by Him who was placed in a manger to deliver us from our sins.

 

 

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  1. November 21, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    “you better watch out, you better not cry
    he knows when you were bad or good”

    i use to love that song when i was a kid growing up as an evangelical, no they didn’t play the music in church service or sunday school.

    that song, along the sunday school teachings incline to morality, have boosted me to do good or at least to come up with a “resolution list” of the good things i am to do next year and he bad things i have to hate

    until one day i learned that christmas was instituted by a pagan man for something else, maybe pagan practices.

    my kids clamour for those green fake trees called christmas tree. they wanted to lit the house with tons of power hungry lights.
    to some family, this season is the only happy time of the year to them.

    in the neighborhood, we are the only one who are different. no fancy light bulbs, no christmas tree. but we enjoy our time together, regardless of the mood of the season. kinda hard habit to break, but yes, as much as possible we avoid the christmas spirit 🙂

    – grace and peace

    • November 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      I like Christmas trees and giving presents and parties and Christmas carols. I just don’t like that we skip the season leading up to Christmas where John the Baptist used to say, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

      Jesus was born to save us from our sins. The Christmas Spirit in America slathers that over with a vague sentimental feeling that “all’s right with the world.” And then Christians too often sprinkle the Christmas story into that feel good American holy season.

      Instead we should celebrate the birth of Jesus in the manger, the birth of Messiah and God in lowliness and sharing our infancy. Otherwise we will never see the God who comes to us as a lowly servant in His body and blood.

      However, my point with this article has more to do with the snotty way Lutherans like me often deal with other Lutherans when they don’t observe advent and kind of treat it as warm up for Christmas.

      I’m reproaching my own failure to properly divide law and gospel and to get mad with Christians instead of preaching and teaching how things like Advent are gifts to us. Which is, strangely, its own kind of failure to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Because since Jesus comes in lowliness and weakness, I should see him in the weakness of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and welcome him in the least of his brethren, as I want people to do for me when I sin.

  1. December 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

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