I originally wrote this post in 2013, and thought it might be good to reprise after a conversation my sister and I had the other day. We were texting back and forth all the mixed up feelings we had about anticipating the extravagance of Christmas while so many, many people are suffering in unimaginable ways across the globe. In reality, that tension has always been present, and will continue until Christ returns. So what are we to do?
Here's a few thoughts that I hope will encourage you this year (and if not, maybe next).
Legalism kills, but order brings life.
For about eight years our family has been learning the daily and seasonal practices of the Church calendar, each one feeling more familiar, normal. Each year we move further past an experimental knowledge of what living liturgically looks like to a more natural sense of what it feels like. We begin to carry the prayers, the candles, the fasting and the feasting with a comfortable grasp rather than poking at them as something too other, too precious.
And so we're learning to order our days and seasons as a liturgy. We do our best with the truth we know -- pray together as often as possible, and giggle at ourselves when we fall asleep on the couch watching Home Alone instead. We revel in the permission to both feed the hungry homeless as well as the four children grazing at the refrigerator in our own kitchen. We take delight in the pantry bulging with ingredients for the feast that arrives on Christmas Day.
As the Scriptures and the ancient creeds settle down into the crevices of our understanding, we ask Jesus to help us see him on the street corner and in the big box store. We do our best to purchase our gifts with fair trade vendors, independent artisans, and, sometimes, we add a few pennies to the Wal-Mart coffers, hoping the money will bless instead of curse.
We try to go deep down to the roots of the season, to understand the sayings of the ancient prophets, the early Church fathers, the poets and the hymn writers from all eras. We also belly laugh when, once again, Clark W. Griswold staples his Christmas lights to the roof. We spend energy in finding the best gifts we can for the people we love. We also spend a good bit of time pencilling in and handing out our own wish lists. We do not feel guilt for our wants; instead, we revel in the sheer, unnecessary delights of the season.
In short: We do not take ourselves too seriously. May I clarify that this is not always our reality? But it is always our hope - to live out the glimpses of our truest selves, spotted in the glow of Advent candlelight. We discover this is what it means to hope.
We do our best to live out the four long weeks of waiting for the Celebration, but we also sample from the holiday already begun outside our front door. The closer we get to the first day of Christmas we shift our energies to full-out celebration, feasting, abundance.
You'd think the celebrating part would be easier than the waiting. Like all other spiritual practices, though, celebration comes with its own comforts and challenges. How do we stay present to the feast without our underdeveloped senses dulling too quickly? How do we keep a soft, pliable grasp on the delights of Christmas, rather than trying to pin the legs of the thing down into some sort of worn-out wonder?
I don't know. I've only just begun to ask the question.
Choosing a New Mantra
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” (Dickens)
Each year we watch three or four versions of that great tale of the Scrooge who meets Christmas for the first time. Like the four Gospel writers, each version of Dickens' classic places certain parts of the story under the spotlight, highlighting certain scenes more than the other versions. For example, the following brief scene in my secret favorite version -- The Muppet Christmas Carol.
On his merry Christmas way to Bob Cratchit's house, laden with gifts of food, Ebenezer Scrooge crosses paths with the charity fundraisers he'd thrown out of his office the day before. In this version, Michael Caine as Scrooge leans down to whisper in one gentlemen's ear his pledged contribution for the orphans. In the manner only Muppets can, Bunsen and Beaker express their bug-eyed, fuzzy-head-scratching amazement.
The scene doesn't end there.
Beaker, a character dispossessed of the ability to speak coherently, shows his gratitude in the best way he knows. With his disproportionately large hands, he removes a festive red scarf from around his disproportionately long neck, and gives it to the surprised Scrooge. In the brief close-up of Michael Caine's face we recognize another epiphany -- his gratitude for a second chance to keep Christmas well motivates him not only to gladly give gifts, but also to gladly receive.
"Thank you. Thank you fifty times."
Gifts as a means of grace
In my memory, the moment my brothers, sisters and I walked down the stairs toward the lit tree, stands out above all other childhood delights. Like bathrobed, bed-headed little Ebenezers walking into the skirts of the rotund Ghost of Christmas Present, we exclaimed astonishment at the abundance before us. It always felt miraculous -- where the night before sat nothing, now gloriously displayed something. A very Grand Something. We had little idea we were poor, and each year our parents removed any hint of the stigma. They wrought abundance from scarcity.
Each year on Christmas we tasted the best of a wealth not measured at the cash register, but in the creative genius of our mother and father. Everything was gift, and everything given as an affirmation of their delight in us.
We learned to follow their footsteps, selecting with care just the right trinkets to express our love for our siblings, parents, and friends. Each December when I walk through the grocery store, past the specialty-box sets of cheese and sausages, I recall the year I stumbled on the genius plan of piecing together my very own, less-expensive cheese and cracker and beef stick combination (paper) plate for my Hickory Farms-loving brother. I marvelled at my own ability to render abundance from scarcity.
Brian and I mark the timeline of our dating relationship by the gifts we gave each other each Christmas. The first year he made me mix tapes, and, without embarrassment, watched me open them in front of three generations of family gathered in my grandparents' basement. Then there's the year, further along in our commitment to each other, I found a perfect winter coat for him at Montgomery Wards, and (to this day) could barely contain my excitement at being able to afford such a warm and nurturing gift for this boy-man I adored. I hoped that as his older siblings and their spouses watched him open the gift, they'd understand that I fully planned on joining their ranks in the not-too-distant future.
Shame-free gifting (or embarrassing Christmas fails)
In all those years together not every gift exchange concluded with a happy ending. One year we laugh about (now) -- another Christmas gathering in my grandparents' basement -- Brian again handed me a gift in front of the rest of family. I unwrapped the paper to discover the very same delicate glass swans that only a few days earlier I'd mocked, when Brian and I were walking through the mall together. He'd asked my opinion; never suspecting he was gauging my response, I'd told him I thought they were ugly. For years afterward, the fragile pair of birds sat center-stage on my bedroom dresser until, one day, something fell on them and they shattered. It was an accident, I swear.
Another year in the middle of his family gathering, as a new Murphy bride, I'd misunderstood my role in the family's tradition of drawing names, and duplicated a gift for one brother-in-law while missing completely the brother-in-law whose name I'd actually drawn. It's funny to me now that incident caused me so much shame; in the moment, however, mortified would not be too strong a word.
Sadly, through the years of my growing up into adulthood the feeling of shame entrenched itself into my gift-receiving instincts. Where once I'd received gifts with unguarded delight, I began instead -- especially with unexpected gifts -- to feel threatened, unworthy, obligated.
Kindness felt dangerous. My receiving-goodness wires got mixed up with my receiving-badness wires, and I couldn't always tell the difference between the two. I built up walls of shame and vigilant self-protection over the raw wounds opened by an assortment of woundings and abuse.
Now, I hope to receive gifts this way: When Jesus told us to come to him as little children, he must have been imagining the way children openly, delightedly, innocently receive gifts. Children do not question their place as ones worthy of receiving gifts. Children boldly believe the beauty of unearned kindness.
Practice gift giving and receiving
It seems that, in my lifetime, people have changed their opinions about Christmas gift giving. Maybe Charlie Brown started it, bemoaning commercialism? We join his melancholy lament in our house; we also guard against extreme measures that might on the surface seem wise, even spiritual. Christ taught us to give our possessions to the poor, yes, but He was no pious ascetic, shunning feasts and merrymaking.
Jesus, Himself, showed us how to receive gifts well. Picture him, feet covered with Mary's perfume, delighting in the scent of her costly gift. She shamelessly -- and extravagantly -- gave; Jesus shamelessly received. Judas' super-spiritual nagging that Mary wasted an opportunity to give to the poor couldn't even ruin the moment. Maybe Jesus had learned the joy of receiving, all those years earlier, when men from another country filled his mother's living room with abundance.
As in every other practice for living, Jesus shows us the way to delight in both the giving and the receiving of gifts. We bask in gift-giving at Christmas, not only to remember what Christ modelled the first time He came to earth, but also to remind each other what we anticipate when He comes again. Haven't we been told our future reconciliation with Jesus unveils the greatest Gift Exchange in History? He makes a new Heaven and a New Earth, and we give Him all glory, laud, and honor (including something about crowns)? No matter how spiritual it might seem, fostering guilty consciences by limiting our enjoyment of Christmas does not make us more like Christ.
There is a time for fasting; Christmas is not that time.
"While we feast, we savor."
My mother created a rule for feasting years ago. As a family, we'd often be invited into other people's homes for mouth-watering meals, but too many times the dinner conversation revolved around the fattening, unhealthy qualities we consumed. It felt like each dish spooned onto our plate came heaped with sides of shame and guilt. At her own dinner table, my mother would not tolerate this sort of pious, joy-wrecking conversation. This is how she taught us her motto for hospitality: While we feast, we savor.
This is no way to feast, friends. Keeping in mind that legalism kills, but order brings life to our family celebrations, Brian and I keep my mother's rule close to heart. While we feast, we savor. At Christmas, we savor every sort of gift - food, music, family, friends, and the boxes and bags we wrap up and hand to each other. All of it -- the ones we give and the ones we receive -- unearned. All of it, grace.
And, so, Christmas begins in three days. Because of Christ's first coming, and in anticipation for his second, our waiting -- good, bad, or ugly -- turns to celebration. Between what we've learned about waiting during Advent, and anticipating the feasting of Christmastide, we hope to walk through these days thoughtfully, joyfully, and graciously.
All of this leads to the Great Festival of Christmastide - a prolonged feasting that lasts twelve whole days. As with Advent, we've learned a lot about how to live this celebration liturgically. (I've written about it here: 12 Ways to Practice 12 Days of Christmas )
Twelve Chesterton-inspired posts for Christmastide
The Daybook posts here will turn the corner to celebration, too, and I'm really excited about the posts I've prepared for Christmas! I don't know a better author to read during Christmastide than the British author and theologian G.K. Chesterton. His writings on the season are legendary, whimsical, and poetic. A group of folks at our church will be reading together one Chesterton essay or poem a day from December 25 to Epiphany (January 6), and I'll be posting them here on the blog with a visual image and carol inspired by the day's reading. We'd love to have you join us!
Thank you, friends, for sharing this internet space with me. It's rightly called "virtual", but has led to so many very real and meaningful connections. I appreciate you all so much.
Blessed Last-Few-Days of Advent and Merry Almost-Christmas to you all,
p.s., If you haven't yet, now might be a good time to subscribe to the blog by email.