This time of year, when I was a full-time Episcopal parish priest, frequently people asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Or, someone will say, “This must be a busy time of year for you.” I suppose they are thinking that Christmas is the major celebration of the Church. My response is that I haven’t finished with Advent. Further, Holy Week and Easter are far busier for a priest than Christmas is.
Actually, Christmas as we celebrate it in Western culture is a recent invention. It is a fact many non-Anglicans do not, or possibly cannot, acknowledge that most of the churches they attend did not celebrate Christmas for much of their history (of course, it could be that many people are ignorant of their history anyway). In fact, the Calvinists, from which sprang the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians, outlawed Christmas all together. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when it was under the Puritans’ control (a group heavily influenced by Calvinism), it was a punishable crime to celebrate the Christmas.
About five decades ago only Episcopalians and Roman Catholics offered Christmas Eve services. Their churches were filled to the brim with all the pews filled with people looking for a means to capture the spiritual meaning of Christmas. I suppose when the other congregations realized that many of their people were here in an Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve they decided they too needed to offer a similar service.
Among the most fundamentalist of fundamentalists (if such a condition exists) celebrating Christmas is seen as a pagan experience only to be celebrated by heathens who hide behind the name Christian. I know this because for years the church where I was serving in New Mexico annually was the target of anonymous flyers denouncing Christmas. Usually the flyers pasted on the church doors pointed out that the outline of Santa Claus with his bag of toys over his shoulder was the same outline of an ancient Babylonian deity. These flyers disturbed members of the parish. The images of ancient and obscure gods had nothing to do with those who love God and follow Jesus. Christmas for Christians is a time to celebrate the incarnation of God all the other stuff around Christmas, including Santa Claus, is irrelevant. I threw away those flyers but now I think I should have been saved to teach us about the fringes of life.
Nonetheless, warning us about the way Christmas is celebrated these days may be a good thing. If we succumb to the artificialness of the season, there is a danger of the celebration becoming a pagan holiday (if it has not already become so). And there is a danger of being numbed or hypnotized into a false sense of “seasonal happiness”, which often is followed by a tremendous let down. The Christmas depression syndrome is real.
I think, at this time of year, we end up being treated like dumb sheep, or better yet, like Pavlov’s salivating dogs. We are pressured to buy, to celebrate, and to envy and to worry about what we have or don’t have.
We can understand children succumbing to the eyewash and the blaring words coming over the television and yearning for things in a toy catalog, but adults really need to examine these impulses. On the Friday after Thanksgiving a store security man was trampled to death by a mob of greedy shoppers; what a commentary!
I can recall our son at about age five could read the words “Free Inside” on a box of cereal before he could read the words that identified what the cereal was. He knew there was some sort of trinket or something in the box and he knew that if he didn’t get it life would not be worth living. He clamored for the “Free Inside” boxes. He had been conditioned by incessant television advertising. I think we often clamor for the “Free Inside” boxes hoping to get a big prize with little effort. As my son often found, there was more promise than performance in the “Free Inside” lure. I find that’s true with so many things shoved into our faces at nineteen-ninety-five. If you buy you get two disappointments for the cost of shipping and handling.
So, here we are at the beginning of December. We just finished Thanksgiving Day, which was largely ignored by the commercial giants of the country, and before we can digest the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie we are headlong into celebrating. The question can be asked legitimately, “What in the world are we celebrating anyway?”
Mindless background music sings out “Joy to the World”, or “Silent Night, Holy Night”, but few are listening. Few are truly joyful and of course there is no silent time to contemplate the incarnation. That background music is just in the air to prod us into buying more. Sadly, I think we are celebrating greed. It is greed, this deadly sin that has led to the demise of our economy.
What we should contemplate at this time of year is change. People are going through life changes; our planet seems to be undergoing changes that will eventual affect everything alive today. Jesus tells us in grim apocalyptic words reported by Matthew, Mark, and Luke that we need to heed the signs of impending change, trouble, or disaster.
The smart people on Wall Street saw the signs of a serious financial crisis but didn’t heed them. The leaders of government saw the signs of the danger of Islamic terrorists, but went on a vacation instead. We may see signs of potential bad health, but keep on smoking, over eating, and not exercising but fail to make the necessary changes to insure a long and healthy life.
What signs do you see? What do you not heed? Is your spiritual and emotional life in a shambles? What signs have you failed to attend to that has led to that condition? These are a lot of questions and they are important ones, but too often we set them aside. Who wants to think of such things during these days of “good cheer”? Those questions take away the fun.
When will the danger of another attack on innocent civilians by raging militants occur? Who knows, but know this, the signs of such an event are there before they happen.
Are the signs of our times the signs of the end of time or the end of the age? Some seriously suggest that they are. But we have been here before. As I think I have said many times, “Don’t worry about end times; if the end of the age comes, it comes, if not keep the faith.” The signs of the times have been and always are indications of a need for awareness and alertness.
What about you again? Are you ready for the unforeseen events of life? Do you keep your head clear by being in a constant state of prayer? Is your soul at ease with whatever may happen in life? If not, turn to Jesus to allow him to show you the signs of your life needing attention.
Prayer and meditation are just about the only way we can truly come into touch with reality. Our foggy thinking and interior rumination confuses us, blinds us, and distracts us.
This is not an invitation to a fun less, joy less, way of life. No, this is an invitation to serenity and joyfulness. Living in a constant state of prayer and trusting the life of Jesus to be your model of living leads to self-contentment, self-assurance, and self-confidence. Now isn’t that better then worry, neglect, and lack of awareness? Stay alert to life, stay aware of God, and stay in touch with Jesus. Your spirit and soul will thank you.