My piece last week on Why I Hate Christmas stirred up a bit of controversy (as well as received many cheers). Anyway, Gail Hochachka (author of two excellent pieces on this site and good friend of mine) wrote a critical comment and left some good questions for me. I thought they deserved a separate response here rather than being buried in the comments section to that piece.
I've noticed that several of your posts are "against" this or that, including this title "why I hate...." Here, I get your rant. Though, I admit I was hoping for some inspiration.
Why do I go to church on Christmas (and rarely the rest of the year)? Because it's not my spiritual practice yet I go for the tradition, to honour the lineage that grew me and fed my family's culture. But also because I am hoping and yearning--like seeking Light in the darkness--for inspiration. Leaving mass often with glimmers of where in the gospels and the readings there are entry points for a deeper layer of practice, and yet deeply saddened that it isn't highlighted. Why not? are we, the congregation, really seen to be that childlike that we wouldn't 'get' it if the priest shared greater depth? ...saddened when i see people around me in the congregation yawning. ...frustrated (and depressed?) that I want to go 'home' and when I do, I find I don't fit anymore.
So, I go hoping for some inspiration... For some depth in the veneer. You, in my opinion, are one among few who can offer this, and I for one would be very open to hearing what you love about Christmas one of these days.
I appreciate Gail's kind words but there are many many people (alive and dead) who have given inspirational, depth-filled sermons on the meaning of Christmas.
Here's the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Sermon from this year.
Here's the Pope's Christmas message.
Here's one from Pope Leo the Great (5th century).
Look up any of the great names in Christianity and they all have Christmas reflections: Luther, Teresa of Avila, The Wesley Brothers, Thomas Merton, John Chrysostom, and so on. Or any number of lesser known but beautiful reflections from Christians around the world.
There's deep Christmas homilies out the wazoo--about 2,000 years of them really. I don't know which church Gail is going to, but she could always come to where I work. The sermon I heard on Christmas Eve from Bishop Michael Ingham was quite profound--on the theme of hope. [When my church gets the sermon audio and text up, I'll link to it.]
More important than all of those--I would recommend reading the Christmas gospel stories themselves. Lose all the schmaltz of baby angels and just read the stories. That's Chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. And the Prologue to John's Gospel, Gospel of John Chapter 1, verses 1-14 (the latter is a cosmic story not a birth narrative of Jesus).
I just think the value of sermons (inspirational or otherwise) is massively overestimated in terms of their practical, concrete effects for the spiritual growth of people. In my mind it sets up a dynamic where people conceive of themselves as spiritual needy and look to someone else to fill them up. I find it a fairly disempowering model. This is why I suggest reading the stories for oneself and wrestling with them. They are many many layers to the texts to be sure, but they are also quite direct and speak to people 2,000 years later.
Reading between the lines of the gospel accounts of Jesus, he was quite ambivalent about his role of public teaching and healing. The group known in the gospels as "the crowds" are clearly distinguished from Jesus' followers who are called disciples. Jesus does perform public inspirational teaching and healing acts but then pointedly calls for people to be disciples. And the bar for discipleship is set really high. That bar includes (but is not limited to):
--abandoning one's biological family to join a fictive kin community ("family of God")
--selling off/giving away much, if not all, of one's wealth
--accepting persecution and the possibility of arrest, torture, or even execution.
In fact as a gospel mandate, the only thing Jesus ever commanded the church to do was "make disciples of all nations teaching them to obey everything I (Jesus) have taught." To my mind, that's the last thing on earth occurring during the Christmas season nor really it seems to me do churches do that throughout the rest of the year. Because, again, the focus is on meeting people's stated spiritual needs. This mindset turns church into another consumer product, what Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism. And along with consumerism and materialism goes individualism: "my needs, my search for meaning, my spiritual journey, etc."
People have been giving profound reflections on Christmas for 2,000 years and still The West slides further and further into secularism. Maybe better sermons and more beautiful Christmas services aren't the answer. Or at least they are not by themselves the answer.
As I mentioned in that piece last week I don't really like to discuss my understanding of the meaning(s) of Christmas by itself. I feel it strips Christmas from its rightful place in the year long liturgical calendar of the church. It takes Christmas out of the context of the entire sweep of the Christian story. I'm not saying non-Christians can't find any meaning or value in the stories (they were after all stories written by Jews about Jews), but my work is in the world of church, so I think I need to uphold its teaching.
The Christmas season, which Western Christians are now in (Merry Christmas Season to those who keep it!), quickly leads to the season of Epiphany. If Christmas is about the Light incarnating in human flesh, then Epiphany is about the choice of whether to follow that Light or not. The theme of discipleship again--not a theme people who only go on Christmas or Easter will hear. After Epiphany comes Lent leading up to Holy Week, The Passion of Jesus, his execution, burial, and resurrection.
If someone has decided in Epiphany to follow The Light on its mission of revealing and enacting The Kingdom of God, then in Lent such a person is lead to question whether he or she is really up for the cost of discipleship. Am I, are we, really willing to follow this all the way to the end? Am I really going to follow Jesus' command, to take up my cross and follow him? Am I really going to take up the instrument of my own torture, shame, paranoia and trust him? Am I going to open myself up to be a sacrifice? Am I going to do this without seeking revenge, all the while forgiving my murderers? Am I really going to pray, "not my will but your will be done"? Am I going to follow this all the way to death, to the incoherence of hell and hope there is some resurrection on the far side?
I used I there because I want to emphasize that I'm a manifest failure in innumerable ways as a disciple. In classic theological language, I'm a sinner. Fortunately Christianity has a great deal of teaching on Divine Mercy and unearned grace.
Like I said, I don't really like telling any story absent the larger context, absent the larger sweep of the big story. I don't know how else to do it. So my Christmas sermon would probably be more about blood, guts, afterbirth, babies shitting themselves and puking and the insane notion that this is God. God is pooping in his drawers. There's more to the story of course, but it never loses this element of God's helplessness.
It always strikes me that the two time a year churchgoers come at Christmas and Easter. One read on that is that they want the good stuff, the happy stories without the pain and suffering. I just don't find that to be true to life. My experience is that, on the largescale, people are looking to religion or spirituality to free them from their pain and if Christianity is to teach anything it would seem to be that the only way is to go into the pain not away from it.
* Image of The God-Bearer Mary and Christ Child thanks to Flickr-er bobosh_t under Creative Commons License.