Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: December 2011

The Absurdity of the Christmas Feast

Photo by Daniel Stillman (used by Creative Commons Permission)

God rest you merry! Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen). We’ve been invited to a feast. Twelve days of rejoicing alongside Mary and Joseph, of beholding with the shepherds, of singing with the Holy Innocents and all the saints, of kneeling with the wise men before the babe who holds the world in His hands.

One moment we were longing and waiting and crying out in the darkness of Advent, and the next moment, the Son of God appears just down the street, just round the corner, in a nearby field. One moment we were in our homes, our jobs, our busy lives, and the next moment we heard an angel say, “Rise up shepherd and follow.” We followed into the small Palestinian village of Bethlehem to behold the “Peace on Earth Good Will to Men.”

Awestruck, we are called to worship and eat, laugh and sing, dance and make merry. Heaven and earth are joined in cosmic celebration of Emmanuel, God with Us, the Hope of Israel.

But all this rejoicing is simply too much for most of us. So we open few presents, sing a few songs and pack up the tree and decorations for next year.

In some ways, the Advent fast is easier to understand than the Christmas feast. During Advent we face the darkness of our world and our soul, but during the Christmas feast we behold the Light of the World in a manger. Crouching in the dark is easier than dancing in the light. We’re simply too weak for sustained happiness.

As Chesterton reminds us, “Happiness is a mystery–generally a momentary mystery–which seldom stops long enough to submit itself to artistic observation, and which, even when it is habitual, has something about it which renders artistic description almost impossible. There are twenty tiny minor poets who can describe fairly impressively an eternity of agony; there are very few even of the eternal poets who can describe ten minutes of satisfaction.”[1]

Happiness is a momentary mystery.

If that’s true, how can we sustain happiness for twelve days of feasting let alone throughout the joyous season of Epiphany? We are simply too weak and too old for such a task. Once again, I turn to the master. Chesterton writes, “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[2] Sin weakens our capacity for the deep joy of our Heavenly Father.

True feasting is far harder than true fasting. True feasting enlarges, opening up the depths of wonder within and around us. Sadly, we live in a world that confuses sensuous gluttony for feasting. Our drunken stupor actually deadens the senses and reduces our capacity to know happiness or deep joy.

One of the weaknesses in some medieval expressions of the Christmas feast was this gluttonous indulgence that led to violence, sexual immorality and damaged souls. Sickened by the deadly extravagances, some U.S. colonies simply outlawed Christmas altogether.

But you can’t keep a dead man down. Christmas returns in the industrialized world of America and England in a new form, stripped of the twelve days of feasting. This new holiday focused on a day of celebration for family and friends.

Christmas became and remains sort of a national holiday for the secular religion of our culture. This isn’t a recent change. It actually is part of the reformulation of the modern Christmas that happened in the nineteenth century. Jack Neely recently posted an interesting quote that diminished any spiritual connection with Christmas from the turn of last century,

“Don’t think that Christmas is not your holiday because your religious beliefs don’t run that way,” ran the cheerful squib in the Republican daily, the Knoxville Journal, in December, 1911. “It’s your holiday, if you want it, and its religious significance is its smallest element.” Reprinted from another paper, it ran without comment.[3]

We inherited a holiday that had lost connection with its roots in fasting and feasting. Most of us grew up by celebrating Christmas all through December and culminating in the big Christmas Day that came too fast and was over too soon. For many people, Christmas could not live up to the promise of restored childhood innocence.

We attempt to overcome this disappointment, this emptiness by making movie after movie about keeping the spirit of Christmas alive, or by falling into the trap of gluttony and gorging on more and more and more stuff. It Santa doesn’t bring me what I want, I’ll charge it and buy it myself! In the process, we actually deaden our ability to wonder.

Even in indulgences, the grace of God cannot be thwarted. By celebrating Christmas, singing carols, decorating trees, and telling stories, we edge ever closer to a thin place. We enter into the danger of encountering something much deeper than a secularized festival. We tread on the holy ground of the Christmas Feast. Chesterton writes, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”[4]

One Christmas in the later 80s, I asked, “Why?” Why do we have a tree? I decided no tree. No pagan festival in our home. Kelly prayed for a tree. Someone showed on our porch with a tree. I thought, “Well if the Lord wants to answer her prayer, I’m not going to stand in the way.” We made homemade decorations.

I kept asking why. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why do we sing about 12 days of Christmas? As I continued to ask questions, I moved closer to the mystery of happiness and the absurdity of the Christmas Feast. How the could angels sing when wars did not cease? How could this story seem sweet when innocent babes died under Herod’s cruel hand?

The paradox of the Christmas Feast is that it does not deny the presence of pain and sin and struggle in the world. The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents is actually part of the feast. And yet, against the backdrop of this pain, the Christmas Feast taps an ancient mystery far more ancient than the utter sinfulness of sin. Reaching all the way back to the earliest moments of Creation, the Christmas Feast celebrates the Lord who beholds His creation and sees that “It is good!”

It Is Good.

At the heart of all things, we hear the ringing observation of God Himself, “It is good.” The Hebrew word for good is “towb.” This richly textured word means far more than good. Inherent in the word is beauty, kindness, happiness, and more. Our Lord creates a world that is beautiful, full of joy, pleasing to the senses, and truly kind. His creation is not only good but Very Good.

The Christmas Feast celebrates this good and wondrous world our God created by enjoying it: eating, drinking, laughing, playing, embracing, giving, and worshipping. Our feasting is extravagant but not the empty gluttony that seeks to feed to sin sick soul. It is doxological. Worshipful. Grateful. It holds joy and sorrow together in a dance of sacred awe.

By juxtaposing the dark yearning of Advent with the bright gaiety of Christmas, the church invites us to worship God in the midst of a world that has been scarred by sin and evil. We do not deny the anguish, but we bring it into perspective by focusing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

As we behold Christ, we behold the Word Made Flesh. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”[5] On Christmas, we celebrate “God with Us” in the midst of His own good and beautiful creation. All things created in and through Him. All things restored in and through Him. Though His world is scarred by sin and evil, He does not abandon it, but redeems it. He defeats evil, and restores it.

We tune our hearts and minds and bodies to behold the babe, the Lord, the Savior, the King of Kings. We choose to rejoice, to laugh, to sing serious and silly songs, and to sing praises to the One who created this world of wonder. Our praise is prophetic for it points to the ultimate defeat of all evil and the ultimate enthroning of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Even as we choose to delight in the Christmas Feast, we mock the power of death, knowing that death itself will die and every oppressing ruler will fall and fully submit to the good God who created this good and wonderful world.

It is absurd to rejoice when we are weak and frail and so fully aware of our own sinfulness. And yet we do. We turn from the darkness; we look to the light. In the turning, we open time and space for surprise. Our Lord so often surprises us with a happiness that we cannot grasp, cannot evoke and cannot sustain. And yet, we can delight in it. We can celebrate His faithfulness to immerse us in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Let us not abandon the Christmas Feast too soon.

God rest you merry dear friends!

[1] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2009-12-15). Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. (350+ Works) Includes The Innocence of Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Napoleon of … What’s Wrong with the World & more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 5712-5714). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

[2] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2009-12-15). Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. (350+ Works) Includes The Innocence of Father Brown, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Napoleon of … What’s Wrong with the World & more (mobi) (Kindle Location 51605). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

[3] Neely, Jack. “Christmas in the City, 1911.” Metro Pulse, December 21, 2011.

[4] Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (1990). The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume 33, page 478. Ignatius Press, 1990.

[5] John 1:3. English Standard Version (ESV), The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

The Appearing of Christmas

Adoration of the Magi (Leonaert Bramer)

 

On Christmas Eve, time is full and taut like a balloon about to burst. At any moment, the Light of Christmas will break forth. At any moment, the angels will sing. At any moment, the ordinary day will be overtaken by “O Holy Night.” The Lord’s appearing is so very near, and so very hidden.

A long wait precedes this sudden appearing of Word Made Flesh.

Those who’ve kept the vigil have been waiting all through Advent. But is not Advent just a way of focusing the deep anticipation we’ve felt throughout our lives? Christmas but the rehearsal of His sudden appearing in the middle of the night. He is so very near, and so very hidden until the sudden moment of appearing.

This vigil for the coming of the Lord burns in the hearts of God’s people from age to age. It may be that we are called to wait and watch on behalf of all creation. Daniel knew this calling, this yearning. Three times a day he faced Jerusalem; he watched and waited, longing for the call of God that would bring His people home.

The call came in the command of King Cyrus. The exiles began a new story of exodus and restoration. Hope pulsed in their hearts. They were like people who dreamed. Their mouths filled with laughter. The Lord turned the captivity of Zion. Old things passed away. All things became new.

But all things didn’t become new instantly. The Promised Land seemed old and worn out. The promises weak and feeble. The milk and honey didn’t flow. The land had become harsh. Alien people and alien gods surrounded them. Israel felt crippled by the enemies around them and within them. Even their own memories betrayed them.

They remembered Solomon’s Temple when the glory was too thick to see. That temple would not, could not be rebuilt. They were too poor, too short of resources. This second temple would be shameful in comparison. The old things that passed away seemed far more glorious than the meager new things.

They lost hope, lost heart and shrank into the shadow of stronger foes. They quit watching and waiting. The unbuilt Temple abandoned. The darkness of Palestine overcame the light of faith.

Zechariah appeared as a voice in this wilderness saying “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He saw a man dwelling among myrtle trees who was the Angel of the Lord. He revealed that the glory of the Lord was in their midst, and they didn’t even know it. He was so very near and so very hidden. They were called to watch and wait, trusting the faithfulness of the Lord. By His grace, they rebuilt the Temple, they rebuilt the city, and they looked for the coming of Messiah.

After 400 years, Jerusalem still watched and waited. When would Messiah come? When would evildoers be overthrown? When would light overcome the darkness? The dark shadow of Rome covered the land.

Into this dark night, a light shined. A babe was born who was Christ the Promised King. In the birth of Jesus, the shepherds beheld the “man among the myrtles” born as a babe. Emmanuel, God with us, was revealed. He came to live in the midst of His people and in the midst of their darkness. The angels sang and the sky lit up in doxology.

But a glorious night passes into a dark day of bloodshed as Herod sought to kill all the male babies. After the grand announcement of “Peace on Earth,” this babe of peace was whisked away and hidden in the deserts of Egypt. The Light came into this world and promptly hid from the darkness.

As we wait and watch, we may wonder if the darkness has swallowed the light and overcome it. Like the exiles returning home, our Christmas joy often fades into promises that seem weak and feeble.

Staring into the bleak landscape of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew this discouragement firsthand. His wife burned to death in an accidental fire. His son entered the war against his wishes and was severely wounded. His nation, the shining city on a hill, now sunk into dark valley of bloodshed. He cried out,

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.’

But he was not forsaken in the dark. He too would come to know that there is a “man among the myrtle trees.” Longfellow would behold the One is who so very near and so very hidden. He continued writing,

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Longfellow, like us, had to discover that darkness could not swallow the Light of Glory. Jesus was born to enter that darkness and overcome it. In His Life and Death, He defeated the power of the sin and darkness and arose in the light of Perfect Love.

He ascended to the Father. Yet even now Jesus, “the man among the myrtles,” dwells among us by His Spirit. He dwells with and in us as we traverse dark lands. We may lose hope and even lose faith. But He has already overcome this momentary darkness. We are bound to Him by His Spirit, so even as we stumble in the valleys of death and affliction, we are not forsaken. Even as we waste away, we are being renewed.

So we watch and wait for His appearing.

We yearn for Christmas Light in a dark and weary world. We know His light shines ever brighter in and upon us though sometimes it is veiled from our eyes. He is so very near and so very hidden. Paul reminds us, we must not lose heart even when it feels like the darkness is growing stronger and we are growing weaker. He is glorifying, perfecting, completing the work begun in us and in His creation. We are growing brighter and brighter in the Light of our Lord.

This transformation, this waiting and watching for the Light is truly rehearsed in our Christmas celebration. In the fullness of time, the Holy Night of Christmas bursts forth the from expectancy of Advent. The sudden surprise of Christmas appears. The Son is fully unveiled in Glory. We behold Him even as we shine in the Light of His Glory.

So let us keep the vigil in and out of season.

Merry Christmas as we celebrate the sudden surprise of His coming and look forward to the sudden surprise of His coming.

Wake Up Call

At some point between the moment I lifted the cup of coffee and the moment it reached my lips, I started to doze. My grip loosened, the cup slipped, and…somehow the cup landed back on the table with a small splash. I jolted wide awake.

How can you fall asleep while drinking a hot cup of coffee? Apparently, I can fall asleep almost anywhere at anytime.

When my sister studied at the University of Tennessee, she was walking across campus one day when she saw a body in the middle of the field. At first she was concerned that someone had passed out or had a heart attack. When she walked up to the body, she realized it was me sleeping. While walking to class, I felt dozy and sat down minute. Then I stretched out and went straight to sleep.

It seems early morning prayer in a coffee shop is particularly conducive to sleeping.

Sometimes the short doze is exactly what I need. I awake with a renewed clarity. Other times, I’m sleeping in my wakefulness.

I was wide awake on a recent morning, when I felt the Lord convict me of sleep, but I was not asleep. I was convicted of a sleep that might understood as distraction, as numbness. This kind of sleep is what some of the Church Fathers might call “sloth.”

Sloth may be indicative of our era. We all are bombarded with so much information that it causes a certain deadness, a certain of loss of focus, a certain emptying of presence. Like falling under an evil spell, we fall into a waking slumber. This slumber is full of motion, activity, busy-ness. This sloth may even be full of prayer, meditation, and study.

Constant motion hides our numbness to existence, our absence of attention or awareness. We exist, but we don’t really see, we don’t really hear, we don’t really live. The world around us and the life within us is dulled and darkened. Our vision grows dim. We lose heart. We become dis-couraged.

In the middle of prayer, the Spirit convicted me of coldness, of self-sufficiency. Beneath this self-sufficiency hides the dehumanizing power of idolatry. This conviction brought to mind something Ole Hallesby says in his classic book called, Prayer. He writes, “Only those who are helpless can truly pray.” As I heard these words echo in my memory, I knew that sloth had sapped me of helplessness.

Hallesby continues, “Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless. We are moved to pray every time the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of prayer, emphasizes anew to us our helplessness, and we realize how impotent we are by nature to believe, to love, to hope, to serve, to sacrifice, to suffer, to read the Bible, to pray and to struggle against our sinful desires.”

He recognizes that our realization of helplessness is a gift of the Spirit. When the Spirit penetrated my heart, I felt like I had been jolted awake by almost dropping the cup of coffee. Right in the middle of prayer, my soul was sleeping, drifting, dozing. Suddenly I was awake. “Oh God, I don’t want to be cold. To be absent. To be numb.”

Listening to Rickie Lee Jones respond in song to the Gospel on her album, “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” deepened this sense of call from the Lord. She asks, “How do you pray in a world like this?” Then later she cries out like the Publican, “I’m down here too, I’m down here too, I’m down here too.” In her cry, I hear the posture of helplessness.

How do we maintain this posture in the midst of the land of plenty? Or how do we maintain a sense of hunger and desperation for God while seeking to live with daily intention? Even the pattern of daily devotion can become the place where our sinfulness hides. We cannot find the answer within ourselves, within our methods of prayer, within our theologies. The answer is beyond us, above us.

During Advent we are looking up. We are looking for the Coming One. Only our Lord can save us from our idolatries. The Spirit compels us to look for the Coming One, the Savior who convicts and redeems. Even in His prodding, His convicting, His exposing, He is healing us of the deadening numbness of a world immersed in self-sufficiency.

He is calling us beyond ourselves. Hallesby writes,
“Jesus comes to sinners, awakens them from their sleep in sin, converts them, forgives their sins and makes them His children. Then He takes the weak hand of the sinner and places it in His own strong, nail-pierced hand and says: “Come now, I am going with you all the way and will bring you safe home to heaven. If you ever get into trouble or difficulty, just tell me about it. I will give you, without reproach, everything you need, and more besides, day by day, as long as you live.”

In His gentle and fiery provocations, our Lord turns us much the like he turns the planets. He orients us around His life, His strength, His love. In Him, we are turning into humans, into lovers. By His Spirit we become lamps lit, burning out in the darkness with the oil of lovingkindness.

I am grateful for His wake up call. Repentance comes as the gift of resurrection for we are turning from death to life. During this Advent season of waiting and watching, I pray that we may hear His call to turn away from our numbness, our coldness, our blindness, our hopelessness. By His Spirit, may we turn toward His redeeming power, His transforming love, His sudden appearing.

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