"Eschatologically Merry Christmas!" and other awkward greetings

"Just a hurried line . . . to tell a story which puts the contrast between our feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly "Xmas" racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a 'bus say, as the 'bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, 'Oh Lor'! They bring religion into everything. Look--they're dragging it even into Christmas now!'" -- 
C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Dec. 29, 1958)

I thought I knew how I was going to write this reflection. It was going to be a straightforward curmudgeonly rant against Christmas Americana. It was going to be juicy and I had a kitchen block of rhetorical knives ready to go. For starters: I resent the Macy's-zation of Christmas. I grind my teeth on Andy Williams' song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I cring when I hear mash-ups of "Rudolph" and "Hark the Herald," as I did this morning, and the only thing worse, of course, is if it were mashed threefold with Evie Tornquist's "Come on ring those bells." (I like Evie, mind you, just not a mash-up of Evie.) And I rue the loss of Advent in so many churches.

Then I rummaged around the internet and realized my rant was going to be a massive cliche. John Wilson via the WSJ via David Neff via Andy Crouch via Facebook confirmed that fact.

I thought I could pull out the "More people commit suicide and succumb to despair while warring households shatter" argument. Another rummaging of the internet and a quick visit to snopes crushed that hope.

Then I found a choice quote by my favorite non-Christian philosopher. LA Laker coach Phil Jackson  recently lamented the fact that his team was slated to play the Miami Heat on Christmas Day. He said, "It's like Christian holidays don't mean anything to them anymore. We just go out and play and entertain the TV. It's really weird." I thought, "Stick it to them, Phil." Then ESPN sports writer Mark Kreidler soured my joy with a cynical read of Jackson. Kreidler's conclusion was frigidly simple:

"For the record, the NBA is determinedly agnostic when it comes to holy days, holidays and any other days you can name. The league schedules basketball games on Christmas Day because the television ratings are tremendous. That's it."

The only bullet left in my six-shooter was the mean letter C: commercialization. It was obvious, right? We hate it. We hate what it does to Christmas and how easily it ruins the reason for the season? We might as well put up Santa Claus on a cross, right, because at least then we would get to experience a truly satisfying religious symbol of a man who lays down his life for the naughty and nice? Regrettably I found things again less than simple. The answer to the question, "We all hate it, right?" is Yes and No and Heck yeah and Who gives a crap and "What the what?".

(A "What the what?" sampler: "Christianity and its total disregard for self to the benefit of others is the sole cause for the success of the U.S. economy and, by extension, the economic health of the entire world.")

What was there left to say? That Coca Cola had mugged the real Saint Nicholas, dragged him into a creepy Astro minivan with no windows and locked him up in a warehouse on the outskirts of Atlanta, only to replace him with a fat doppelgänger and an alternate myth that would rule American civic religion during the last month of the Gregorian calendar? Maybe. But that's already been said.

So here I am sitting in my parent's "locutorium," enjoying a warm fire, a cup of Earl Grey tea, while Phaedra and dad pay a visit to Chuy's, wondering why I'm still feeling out of sorts. I think the answer is this.

If words have meaning only in context, then the greeting "Merry Christmas" makes sense only in a certain context, and Macy's, Andy Williams, Coca Cola and, I hate to say this, a lot of churches get the context wrong. To call this time of the year the most wonderful and to repeatedly greet each other with the phrase "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas" is less a sociological inaccuracy (as far as stress levels go) than a simply confusing statement for your average American. Most wonderful in relation to what? "Parties, marshmallow-roastings, scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago," as Andy Williams sings of it?

Merry or happy with respect to what? For the record, I love the way my family celebrates Christmas. In many ways it's quite wonderful. We laugh a lot and we eat enough Italian foods and drinks, starting on Dec. 23 and running into New Year's Eve, to certify as a merry event with the National Italian American Foundation.

Two things are potentially confusing, I think, and with this I'll bring my reflection to a close, as I focus less on "Christmas Americana" and more on the experience of faithful Christians who attend their churches during the month of December.

One, without Advent the experience of "happiness" during the run-up to Christmas can easily become an emotionally contrived experience. The church traditionally and wisely has recognized that we need Advent. If we are going to know what to do with Christmas, then we need to know how Christmas relates to things before and after it. The Incarnation arrives with prophetic forerunners and, as Buechner might say it, with subsequent experiences of tragedy, comedy and fairy tale. As the "little Lent" where we intentionally give our minds and hearts to the practices of simplicity, quiet, and repentance and recall the threefold coming of Christ, Advent helps us to "learn" happiness in relation to the kind of happiness the Scriptures represent. We learn this kind of happiness over time.

God knows we can't simply "turn on" happiness. We resent that kind of pressure. We have to learn happiness, and if the Scriptures teach us anything, it is that happiness comes frequently accompanied by sadness. So Advent is this really beautiful way to train our emotions in the biblical rhythms of ordinate happiness and sadness. When Christmas arrives, as it will tomorrow, we've each had a chance to pay attention within the context of communal worship to the condition of our own hearts. With the Holy Spirit's help we can offer the best of our heart's praise, sometimes choosing to joy in the birth of Christ despite the melancholy mix of emotions that swirl inside us at this time of the year (as they do for me with certain sadnesses that have lingered longer than I ever thought they ever would).

A second reason we need Advent to show us what to do with Christmas and with ourselves is that it reminds us that things make best sense in the context of a narrative. (For those who care, Alasdair MacIntyre sits over my shoulder at this moment.) I'll put my point this way.

When we say "merry Christmas," we need always to think Zechariah/Elizabeth/Mary/Joseph/JohntheBaptist/Shepherds/citizensofBethlehem/Jesus. We need to let them help us determine the meaning of the word "merry," and trust me, they each tasted merriness acutely.

Zechariah? Merry because he was given a son at last, a son he could really be proud of. Sad because he did not get to see his son grow up and become a man.

Elizabeth? Merry because in her old age she was delivered from the epithet "the old barren one"(Luke 1:36). Sad because her son was destined to live a hard, lonely life, from which she could not protect him.

Mary? Merry because the Son of the Most High was born of her by the power of the Spirit. Sad because a sword would pierce her soul on his account, over and over.

Joseph? Merry because he was chosen to be Jesus' surrogate father. Sad because the shame surrounding the suspicious conditions of Jesus' birth would continue to haunt the family (Luke 3:23).

John the Baptist? Merry because he was chosen to be the forerunner of the Lord. Sad because even at the end of his life, in prison, he struggled with doubt.

The Shepherds? Merry because they were chosen to receive the first announcement of Christ's birth? Sad, well, because they had to go back to their socially "lowly" jobs.

Citizens of Bethlehem? Merry because they were the privileged citizens who welcomed God himself into their village. Sad because all boys two years and younger were slaughtered on his account.

Jesus? Merry because of the joy set before him, he endures the cross and swallows death whole. Sad because of the hard-heartedness that surrounds him on every side.

Jesus, of course, rises triumphant over death, so we should make merry over that event and we do at Easter, and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon his disciples to become a sign of the kingdom on earth, so that too is an occasion for merriness, and look at all that God has done through his people since the day of Pentecost, and that equally much should give us pause to make merry. And we do. We rejoice in the Lord always. The twelve days of Christmas on which we remember the Incarnation is a feast after all. On it we have every permission to make riotous merriment.  Our merriment, however, shall always be qualified by Advent and by Lent and by every broken piece of our lives. We won't know the undiluted merriment of the Triune God until the eschaton.

So while it might embarrass Phaedra if I turned to every checker at Target and enthusiastically announced, "Eschatologically Merry Christmas!", it would be accurate, I think, and I might try it out for next year. For now, as I anticipate our transition into 2011, I'm going to start practicing other awkward phrases like, "Merry Eighth Day of Christmas!" and "Happy Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord!"

If I'm lucky, Phaedra and I will one day find a group of friends to celebrate the twelve feasting days of Christmas properly--with much merriment.


Greg said…
Thank you my friend. After overseeing a whole host Christmas Eve services and all their rehearsals and such - stretching back for months it seems - I find myself dizzy with the lyrics of merriment which seem strangely out of place in my exhausted mind and body. It's only now, 4 minutes after midnight on Christmas Eve that find myself able to sit in quiet and reflect. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It's hard, isn't it? It's hard to know how to celebrate well. All of God's feasts are bittersweet it seems. But, we are usually too bitter - or too sweet.

I am glad you are able to spend these days with your family. Enjoy them - and Merry (already, not yet) Christmas.
Greg, I'm impressed with all the ways you've served your church. I'm impressed with pastors everywhere at this time of year. It's a long haul of activity. You're right that all our feasts at one level are both bitter and sweet.

An already merry Christmas to you, my friend, and may the grace of Christ surprise you in the eleven days left.
Terri Fisher said…
Thank you for the thoughtful, eschatologically stimulating reflections on this blessed season.
You're most welcome, Terri. And thank you and Mark for the beautiful work on the church's pageant Christmas Eve. It was the most creative pageant Phaedra and I have ever seen.
all's i got to say is a sorta sad and sorta hopeful Amen.
Tamara, that sounds like a biblical sort of Amen.
Anonymous said…
Dude, count us in for the 12 days of Christmas celebration with much merriment!
Ben, you and Joy are already on the invite list that will one day get written. It would be non-stop fun.
Terri Fisher said…
Thanks, David. We are blessed with some very talented and generous artists at Christ Church.

Popular Posts