So, I set out to write regularly until the end of the year. That didn’t work out so well.
Then, I also set out to write posts on Advent for the season. That, too, didn’t work out so well.
Once again, I’m relegated to apologizing for not staying regular with posts and updates. Sorry about that.
In any case, a happy Christmas to you all. I managed to put every radio in the house to the local or satellite Christmas station shortly before Thanksgiving, and the novelty is, indeed, wearing thin. Some rotations are better than others at keeping it somewhat varied–the Christmas muzak channel at work is downright abysmal in the depth of its selection, amplified by the fact that the volume is as well–but all in all, it’s getting stale. Eventually, the songs, already too familiar, drone together, creating an auditory mishmash. And, in an attempt to break the monotony of cheery, folksy, campy singalong ditties, I found myself paying attention to the words.
For those of you who have known me for any considerable length of time, this probably comes as no surprise.
In fairness, I love a lot of these old hymns and carols. Hearing them sung by talented vocalists can create chill moments even for the irreligious or the disinterested. Even so, these messianic origin stories assume the conclusion of the story and, in so doing, we have flipped the script and traded the awe with which the devout should consider the mystery of the incarnation–with apologies to Saturnalia, the reason for the season–with the atonement of our sins.
All the while, Christians and anti-materialists alike clamor about the ever-encroaching consumerism of a month-long shopping season, blinded by the fact that the problem isn’t with the ringing of cash registers or getting this season’s chic gift, but with a much more subtle egocentrism that runs deeper than the allegedly fascistic socioeconomic tendencies of recent Western society.
The songs of the season, older themselves than our understanding of consumerism, are impinged with our sense of self-importance. “Away in a Manger” refers to the baby Jesus invariably as Lord, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” refer to Jesus as the newborn king. An entire stanza of “O Little Town of Bethlehem can’t get out of its own soteriological way: ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven; no ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’
“O Holy Night” is perhaps the most egregious: ‘long lay the world in sin and error pining, til he appear’d and the soul felt its worth; a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…’
We can, within fair territory of poetic license, assume importance to the [celebrated, not actual] night when Christ was born, and some of the old carols do so; make no mistake, with regard to the gospel, the uncanny birth narrative sets the stage for an uncanny life and uncanny death and infinitely moreso uncanny resurrection. But we’re not celebrating the death of Christ, we’re celebrating his birth. We have no problem assuming our theology of salvation in December, while generally ignoring Passover in the paschal season–a decidedly not unimportant salvific celebration for Jews–and I’ve never heard a musician lead the congregation in a stirring rendition of “Silent Night” on Good Friday.
In celebrating a baby, we remember death? That’ll go well on a birthday card. It’s like thanking a dead relative for the inheritance during the eulogy. He was a good man, my dearly departed grandfather was. But I’m cashing in that trust fund and selling the cabin!
Previously, I’ve argued that Jesus didn’t die for us, but to settle a spiritual score. In the same way, he wasn’t born for us, at least not primarily. The celebration cannot be what Jesus did for us–after all, getting out of the birth canal is salvation for Mary and a terrified Joseph, but for the fact that God was working. Shepherds came to the cave not because of Jesus Christ, but because they were compelled to by the angels. The magi didn’t have a clue as to what the full meaning of the star was, they followed it because it was an astronomical anomaly worthy of their attention. (A transcultural gospel even before the gospel was gospel! And aside of the Abrahamic covenant, to boot!)
What seems to have happened over the years is that we are worshiping what God has done. In so doing, we kick the baby Jesus out of the creche and shoehorn ourselves in there instead. If sin nails Jesus to the cross all over again, then isn’t this a fair metaphor for the converse season? Isn’t this akin to Peter wanting to build the monuments on the mount of transfiguration?
We are to praise God for the mystery of the incarnation–Goethe was on to something–and for setting in motion events that would lead to a new agreement between God and man made through the God-man. But we made ourselves the new chosen people, established our new Israel and made everything about us. To recapitulate Christmas without recapitulating the rest of how we go about our business is to remember the Sabbath and use the other six days as bacchanal. Or to cut taxes without cutting spending. The birth narrative has to stand on its own, or it does not stand at all. Applying theological hindsight bias to the story itself is to say that our story is more important than the story that would legitimize us; postmodern hating modern, Fabian socialists punitively taxing the rich, atheists disdain for theism, fundamentalists decrying sin: all these need the symbiotic relationship with that which it hates or to which they are fundamentally opposed. They are contingent upon their predicates, lest a child not have a mother or father.
And in the instance where a actually child has no father, the world takes note. Therein lies the singular crux of Christmas. Not in a sense of substitutionary atonement, but in the factual claim that a child was born who had no father. It is a mystery in the depths of Popper’s swamp far beyond the constructed foundations of empirical science. It is either true or it is not; either way, it is a proposition that requires contention.
On the penultimate day of this season, let the story negotiate its own terms. Save your seasonal praise for the spring. And feel free to give generously to loved ones, those in need or to a good cause.
Oh, and to those so inclined, spare us all of sanctimonious diatribes about consumerism until another day.
A happy, safe and peaceful Christmas to you all.