Note: Below is a holiday message from our contributing writer, Evan Stark, whose studies focus on Christianity. Progress and Tea wishes everyone a joyous holiday season, no matter how you’re celebrating. We look forward to sharing more pieces with you in the New Year!
For many people, religious or not, Christmas has a special place in in their hearts. As Andy Williams would say, “It's the most wonderful time of the year.” People are putting up trees and stockings. The world, even though the sun is only out for a short time, feels a whole lot brighter. Houses, businesses, and barns are outlined with strings of colorful lights. For many, this is their Christmas reality: a joyful time. For many others, it is something seen on TV.
Imagine the perfect Christmas... now the perfect tree…. add the perfect day with family. Honestly, when I imagine this, I think of the movie Christmas Vacation. The celebration’s gone awry, but Clark still reads The Night Before Christmas to his family gathered around a Christmas tree, cut fresh from the front yard, ignoring the a messy kitchen and dining room. The Griswolds, despite all the problems of the holidays, stick together. Whether the perfect image of Christmas comes from your own experiences or from the images in Christmas Vacation, Christmas Story, or Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas is the season to be merry, as they say.
Yet, there is another, much bleaker image. While I was listening to a Christmas show on IPR the other day, I heard John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas (War is Over),” which always gets to me. The lyrics ask, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” Christmas, in many ways, marks the end of the year and marks a time of reflection on the previous year. The holiday bleakly yells, “Freeze! Think before you start it all over again.”
Now imagine a dreary, overcast December day. No snow. Freezing temperatures turn rain to ice. Maybe the image is a lone, ragged, scrawny tree in an empty, lightless apartment. A couple ornaments pull down the branches. A sharp chill seeps through the windows, and a lonely soul, barely hanging onto an empty bottle of cheap whiskey, rests on a cruddy recliner. This is the exact opposite of Christmas joy.
Christmas is indeed a season of extremes, a time of great joy or great depression. The two scenes I asked you to imagine invoke intense emotions. Sometimes these emotions run into each other, mixing together joy and sorrow—the strange combination of celebrating the child born in a manger and feeling remorse for a year passed.
As we look back on the season of Advent and gear up for Christmas, we may see a strange and extreme mix of emotions. Consider the differences between John the Baptist, who preached a message of fear, repentance, and the coming Judgment and Isaiah, who prophesied the coming Messiah—a figure contrary to the conquering hero they expected from the line of David. These are oracles of impending destruction and ominous prophecies of Christ’s return.
There is a continuous sense of, as Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frankenfurter would say, “Antici........pation.”
What do you think Moses expected as he climbed Mt. Sinai for a second time? The people of Israel had rejected the laws already. Moses, in a fit of anger breaks the stone slabs containing the Ten Commandments. Who was he going to encounter when he climbs that mountain again? The Bible tells us that the God Moses encountered, to his surprise and maybe ours, was a God of faithfulness and mercy, one slow to anger. Most importantly, he encountered a God of Love.
In the turbulent times of the early Church—when Rome was conquering nations and oppressing people and Christianity, what sort of God did the early Church find? A loving one.
Finally, who did the shepherds encounter on that starry night?
Imagine the Heavens shining brighter than the sun in the middle of the night. Angels singing in a thunderous, perhaps deafening chorus. These lowly shepherds witness a cosmic phenomenon of immense proportions. What sort of God would tear the Heavens apart with a chorus of angels? What sort of announcement could this be?
Many of us have heard this story before, memorizing the details in abstraction. Wipe what you “know” from your mind. Imagine yourself as a shepherd in the middle of a pasture, watching over sheep on a brisk but seemingly ordinary night. I can imagine it easily, having grown up around sheep. My dad raised them for years, so I easily picture myself relaxing in the middle of the field on a cold night, just after finishing the chores.
Suddenly, I hear the angels in a thunderous chorus singing praises to God, but do I understand their message? In my shepherd’s mind, I may first think it’s a message of conquest or judgment. The farthest thought from my mind is that it’s an announcement of joy.
Joy: the most unexpected, uncalled for, uncouth announcement in the history of humanity.
In our everyday lives, may we look for the announcements of joy, not just despair, although it’s perfectly okay to feel conflicted this time of the year. The gift of love is the ultimate gift we can be given. It is also the ultimate gift we can give. In God’s divine grace and mercy, we have been given love, which conquers all. Love overturns empires and tyrants, and spreading love can make bleak Decembers a little better.
For God so Loved, we are to Love.