All is set. The Tree is up and twinkling. The gifts are wrapped in pretty paper and bows, carefully prepared by loving hands. The stockings are hung. Flour and sugar sprinkle the kitchen floor as the sights and smells of the season come alive in favorite baked goods--holiday sugar cookies, pumpkin cake, fudge, candies and more! It is the season of Christmas. And traditions very much embody this wonderful season!
Traditions are richly instructive in that they should remind us why we do the things we do and who we are. I read a FB status a few days ago, and it caught my attention: "Watching sappy holiday shows that teach us what Christmas is really about, but then the commercials that teach us buying stuff is what it's all about". I realized that that is the tension that holds us all between a rock and a hard place. We are receiving conflicting messages about the WHY of Christmas (why we do the things we do), which causes us to misunderstand the WHO (who we are) of Christmas. Traditions are effective instructors, when held in the context of knowing the WHY and WHO; however apart from these important focal points they just become things that entertain and temporarily warm our hearts.
Our culture has taught us a great deal more than we realize, as the fictional television shows seem to understand the WHY and WHO better than the "real people". I wonder if advertisers (those people paid to coerce us through the medium of TV) know that we innately want to experience a real Christmas, so in offering us a plate full of "temporary warm fuzzies" in TV shows they, in effect, warm us up to unconsciously associate Christmas with "stuff". This is the commercialism that has infiltrated the hearts and minds of our culture at this season. The reality is that most of us were raised up in this framework of Christmas--we want the real deal but don't know how to really experience it apart from the hustle and bustle of the stuff. That is the tension that makes me want to go crazy at this season, and each year it seems to get worse for me. I don't know why, however I know I am not the only one.
Enter Jesus the Christ. Yesterday, I spent some time with folks, who are in more ways than I could ever possibly list "Jesus with skin on" to me. They help me re-orient myself when I get lost in the mire of this world (all the stuff that wants to distract us from our real purpose, which is to love and worship God). We briefly began to speak the same language regarding the tension. We feel it, and we don't really know what to do about it.
Thanks to mind-bending, challenging classes in my seminary experience, I have learned that culture is not something that you can change overnight. Culture does change however and it is very interesting to observe that it is a few elite circles which determine the direction of culture. As a populace, we are trained to trust and follow the way of culture. We don't even realize that we do it. Seriously. Sociologists study this kind of stuff, and frankly, it is exceedingly complicated. Hence the reason I am not a sociologist. But...they have a point, and their voice should be heeded, particularly regarding the Christian Church. New questions have been asked about how the Church could be relevant in the context of our culture, which is tends to be a more pluralistic, tolerant perspective. How on earth do you teach a culture that believes in tolerance, relativism and pluralism that Jesus is the only way? The word "belief" is really an ambiguous word in our culture; it could mean a variety of things to a variety of people. A really smart guy named Lesslie Newbigin wrote a book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, in 1989. (Yup, they were talking about this stuff twenty years ago--I wasn't even out of high school yet.) Newbigin writes, "The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about 'what is true for me' is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death" (22). Newbigin states that, yes, we are a pluralist culture where beliefs systems are ambiguous things, illustrated in most often in two polarities: objective and subjective. Beliefs in FACTS are typically understood as objective, factual reality (though at the core they are based on presuppositions); Beliefs in FAITH are typically perceived as subjective, based on an individual personal reality or truth. For example, conceptually, the truth of Darwin's theory is perceived objective vs. the truth that God created humankind is perceived as subjective. In our culture, objective wins, therefore, Newbigin adds that we really aren't pluralist at all--we know and believe, as a culture, in one way--objective truth or FACTS. "For science is what we all know, and religion is what some people believe" (27). Newbigin spends significant time in this book talking about knowing and believing--and how as a culture we have come to know things as FACTS, which were initially not based on any systematic, mechanical framework (which we would understand as science today).
OK, STOP! Right? You're reading this blog and you're thinking--WHAT is she saying? The tension that I described earlier i, I think, based upon these belief structures in our culture. We are disoriented, as a culture, in regards to the purpose of Christmas, mostly because we no longer know who we are. Faith is not considered a plausible objective truth--it is a privatized, individual choice. Therefore, when we as a culture, choose to celebrate Christmas, which is rooted in a Christian faith-system, there is a gap--a big gap--and we do now know how to fill it. Faith is individualistic, not communal, in our knowledge of reality. So, we have grown into a system of belief regarding Christmas that says it is about being nice to others, giving gifts and loving the world, without the context of understanding the real PURPOSE of Christmas. We give because God FIRST gave to us. We LOVE because God first loved US. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God stepping down into history and taking on human flesh, we have the factual, real-deal illustration of love and the greatest gift of all. Apart from this context, Christmas simply does not make any sense, in my opinion.
So...you might say this: "Heather, you are a Christian! If you know the purpose of Christmas, why do you feel the tension?" After some time reflecting on that, I think it is because I am in the world--living in a culture that does not embody the purpose of Christmas and does not know whose they are. All of the roadsigns at Christmas, the commercials, the advertisements, and the stores seem to paint an idyllic winter wonderland of joy and happiness in stuff. That is not reality, yet, we, as a culture, believe that we can get those experiences when we get that new car, that new toy, that new techno-gadget--we believe that joy and happiness can be found apart from the revelation of truth in Jesus Christ.
My heart's desire is to experience Christmas on a more communal level, I think, not simply as an individual. My beliefs are not just based upon my individual experience--they are based upon the revelation of God's plan through Scripture and the historical Church (even with all of her problems!). Faith in Christ is realized most fully in the community of believers. Surrounded by a culture that does not embody the purpose of Christmas can be disorienting. I don't know what the solution is for the believe in our culture. We are impacted much more than we realize by our culture--by the media, etc. So the tension exists. What are we to do about it? How can we find our place as believers in God, followers of Christ, in a culture that clearly rejects the truth of our proclamation? I think that is a very good question, and the answer is difficult to find.
In the midst of today's culture, I seek to find the Christ-child. The image of a precious gift, sent in the most humble means possible. All is set. Traditions are in full swing today. It is the eve of the greatest celebration of all--the birth of Christ. The purpose of Christmas. He is the Who and the Why of Christmas.