Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

For some time I have been thankful that the Church dropped the dark notes of St. Stephen and Holy Innocents into the Feast of Christmas. In part, for the sake of those who mourn; in part, because it brings out Christmas’s natural patina — the patina that all beautiful things have, and without which brightness and comfort and joy devolve into triumphal kitsch. Mostly, though, I’m grateful for these days because they are helpful markers of what Christmas was, and is, in the story of the world: “a sign that will be opposed (and a sword will pierce your soul also).”

Wherever the gospel forms and moves a man to do good works in public, there will be envious informers and an angry mob with a Saul of Tarsus urging them to cast their stones. When the Light of the World dapples the walls of a cave in Bethlehem, then Herod the King — that oh-so typical political strongman who would co-opt the worship of God for his self-serving civil religion — will rage against the arrival of the Light.


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In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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The night almost had me:
Sleep with no dream, no rest;
Dark without Abram’s stars;
Lead silence that freezes
Flesh, blood, bone and marrow.

I had no breath to plead —
No word, no cry;
Only a groan to ask

And I heard in my breast
A woman bearing God
Groaning in labor pain,
Then a baby wailing,
Then two sighs, and soft breath
In the rhythm of sleep,
And rest.

That day Mother and Child
Spoke my language, uttered
A plea I understood.

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Today is the eve of Christmastide.  And yet, despite the fact that the twelve-day Feast hasn’t begun, there is no shortage of Christmas fatigue in the air.  I can think of at least two sources of the fatigue.  The first is that celebrating and having a good time are hard work — good work, but work not easy to keep up over the long haul.  The second is the encroachment of the commercial racket.  After all, we’ve been bombarded with various and sundry Christmas messages since November 1.  How much longer can we even think about it?

The last half century has not produced many effective fortifications against Christmas fatigue.  But it has produced one highly improbable one: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Upon one viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is evident that this is a different Christmas special. In modern American Christmas entertainment, it has no parallel. In contrast to most of the slick, well-polished Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has a rough, unfinished feel to it.  The characters are voiced by actual children, in most cases children with no previous voice-over experience. In many places, the show plays more like a series of loosely connected comic strips than a well-integrated story (not surprising, given that the three-frame comic strip was writer Charles Schulz’s regular medium). Far from being limitations, though, those qualities actually make the special earthier and more like real life. There is no glitz, no jingly-jangly bells, little adornment, much melancholy.  The one theme that holds the show together is the extended jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas.

Charlie Brown’s struggle against the commercialization of Christmas in the show paralleled Charles Schulz’s struggle against the CBS executives.  Schulz had to fight on a few fronts to keep the show as he’d conceived it.  First, in keeping with convention for kids’ shows, the CBS execs had wanted to add a laugh track – a suggestion Schulz firmly rejected. Second, the execs didn’t like Vince Guaraldi’s brilliantly understated jazz score; this, after all, was a children’s Christmas special, and why would anybody even think about setting it to jazz? Again, Schulz held the line. Finally, the CBS execs were appalled at Linus’s reading St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – better to stick with a vague, lowest-common-denominator Christmas message to avoid offending anyone. This was Schulz’s Alamo: No gospel of Luke, no show.

Schulz’s battles are a fitting backdrop, then, to the show itself.  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Charlie Brown announcing the problem that will dominate the story:

There must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.

Things get worse when Charlie Brown learns that both his dog and his little sister have “gone commercial,” and when Lucy tells him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” And Charlie Brown’s “rock bottom” is the ridicule he receives for picking a small wooden tree (significantly, the only wooden tree on the lot) over a flashy aluminum one for the Christmas play.

It is at that point, when the salesmen in the temple of Christmas seemingly have their feet most firmly planted on Charlie Brown’s neck, that in exasperation he asks the momentous question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?” Then Linus steps into the spotlight, and with his trusty blanket and a simple recitation of the Christmas story as recorded by St. Luke, drives the salesmen out of the temple, with their shameless sales pitches and bloated pageantry. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Smiling, Charlie Brown picks up his fragile little tree and walks happily out of the theater into the crisp, starry December night.

His joy, though, is short-lived. The first blow it suffers is seeing that Snoopy won first prize in the commercial lights and display contest. When the “big eastern syndicate” running Christmas gets its tentacles into your beagle’s doghouse, it’s easy to take your eye off the babe in the manger and the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem.

Charlie Brown shrugs that off, though, and proceeds to put one of the bulbs from Snoopy’s doghouse on his little tree. Disaster – the tree collapses from the weight. Crushed, Charlie Brown walks off, lamenting, “everything I touch gets ruined.” This is a thornier problem than commercialization, because it isn’t inflicted from without, but from within. And it has a sting of truth in it common to all. Like Charlie Brown, we are a people of clumsy and unclean hands, and our deeds, projects, and relationships all bear our smudgy fingerprints.

Thankfully, Charlie Brown has a good friend wImageho comes along, sees the wreck he’d left in his path, and, with a little love and his trusty blanket, heals it. That friend is of course Linus. In the theater Linus had taken on the mantle of a prophet, confronting big evils with plain truth; in this scene, he becomes a priest, intervening for and lifting up the broken and downtrodden.

It isn’t a complicated story, and, as I mentioned before, the component pieces don’t hang together neatly. But I’ve been watching it since I was eight, when I did not even know that the weird text Linus read in that animated auditorium was from the Bible. For years, I could not understand the quality that kept dragging me back to watch it, year after year, or why Linus’s reading had so deeply seared my young pagan mind.

But now I get it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few pieces of holy Christmas entertainment produced in the twentieth century. Fittingly for a Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas does not animate distant, untouchable holiness, but holiness come near and reaching out, stirring our imaginations, fortifying us against the cultural acids that wear us down, leaving us a little different than before. The show isn’t bombastically holy, but — perhaps as real holiness always is — it’s gentle and unemphatic. Far from being ponderous, it wears its gravitas lightly. In a world overcrowded with entertainment profane, banal, or even just vaguely wholesome or fuzzy-warm, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as a testament that real, gritty, in-the-medium and on-the-ground holiness never goes out of style. Which is, after all, what Christmas is all about.

(Originally published December 31, 2011 at While We’re Paused, the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.)

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Text: St Luke 2:1-20

Trinity Season is the time of year when the Church calendar synchronizes with the present and plants us firmly on earth. After running through a six-month cycle of fasts and feasts which call us, by turns, to look backwards, forwards and upwards, we find ourselves ready for six months of attending to here, now.

Not that we forgot here, now during our annual tour of Christ’s blessed life, which ran from the first Sunday in Advent up to the Feast of Pentecost.  We didn’t, for example, pray to the baby Jesus at Christmastide, because the baby Jesus grew up, died on a Roman tree of torture, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.

Neither do we now forget, however, that heaven received Jesus as our merciful and faithful high priest only because He was made like us, his brothers and sisters, in every respect. That means He has partaken of flesh and blood – and, at one time, of tender infant flesh. Isaiah prophesied about “the zeal of the LORD” establishing the kingdom of God, setting David’s greater son, the Prince of Peace, on the throne of the kingdom. Here is the zeal: the baby who would sit on David’s throne wasn’t just a messenger from God.  He wasn’t just David’s son, He was David’s Lord: very God Himself, the fullness of deity impressed upon baby flesh so that He could be, in every way, “God with us.”

St Luke tells us that when the baby in the manger had grown up into the fullness of manhood, he once pulled back the curtain of heaven to show what happens there when just one sinner comes to his senses and repents: the angels of God throw a party in celebration.[1] In his Nativity narrative, Luke likewise pulls back the curtain of heaven and reveals the heavenly host belting out a celebratory Gloria! to hail Jesus’s birth. The celebrations are of like kind. For in the manger in Bethlehem the angels saw the zeal of their Lord, going forth to call sinners to repentance.

[1] St Luke 15:10.

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On this first day of the year I look at two feast days that are often overlooked in the post-Christmas Day holiday fatigue: The Feast of the Circumcision (today) and the Epiphany (January 6). I bring them up together because they are a well-matched pair. The former marks Christ’s receiving the sign of the old covenant, and the latter, Christ’s receiving the sign of the new – i.e. baptism.[1] Or, if we think of Epiphany like well taught members of the Western Church, the Circumcision marks Christ as the glory of his people Israel, and the Epiphany marks Him as the light for revelation to the Gentiles.[2] Either way, we might say that if the Christmas Feast marks the Creator God’s intense commitment to the medium of His creation – earth and breath, flesh and blood – the Circumcision and the Epiphany display the depth of the covenant God’s commitment to a particular story: the story of Abraham. In Christ, God receives first the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, cutting off the foreskin, and then the sign of the new covenant, cutting off the foreskin of the heart by baptism, that He may personally fulfill the Abrahamic covenant, and at last make Abraham what He had long promised to make Abraham: a blessing to all the families of the earth.[3]

The Father decrees, and the Son submits to the decree, that the foreskin be removed – not for kicks, but so that He doesn’t have to cut narrative corners. Christ becomes servant to the circumcised to confirm the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. YHWH’s mercy is that He is a better storyteller than Procrustes: He cuts to save.

[1] For the Eastern Church the Epiphany marks the manifestation of all three Persons of the Trinity at Jesus’s baptism.

[2] See St Luke 2:29-32 (the nunc dimittis).

[3] Genesis 12:1-3.

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Advent — always a brisk, brief season — is shorter than usual this year. Christmas Eve is following right on the heels of the fourth Sunday in Advent. Among other things, that means we skip the daily readings appointed for the days following the fourth Sunday: readings designed to prepare us for Christmastide, which is now upon us.

The effect of losing this week in the table of lessons and Psalms is curious. For while Christmas Day shall fall on December 25, as it always does, it feels like Christmas Day is coming like a thief in the night — with a kind of thrill of fear that usually attends a well-rendered judgment.

In this, the abbreviation in the liturgical calendar this year brings out something significant about Christmas. For while Christmas is profoundly comforting, it is not (in the colloquial sense) comfortable. At the Lord Jesus’s first Advent, God did nothing less momentous than judge the world:

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

Sometimes the most effective judgment is simply to turn the lights on.  Flick the switch in the kitchen and the naughty cockroaches scurry for the dark underbelly of the refrigerator.  Publish the content of the shady backroom deal and the naughty politicians scurry to the comforting darkness of their war rooms and lawyers’ offices.  Let a six-year-old speak simple Sunday School truth to an erudite middle-aged sociologist, and the hedges magically appear like Jack’s beanstalk. Those whose eyes have adapted to see in thick darkness do not take kindly to the curtains going up in the morning.

Yet for all the rage against the arrival of the light, the light, like the little beam from the star Samwise Gamgee saw hanging over Mordor, has found its way into and – simply by being itself – judged the darkness. At that, the thrill of fear, which called us to attention and sobriety, may give way to a thrill of hope.

Happy Christmastide, friends!

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