Comfort is Not the Christmas Call

The Christmas season is upon us. We waited and waited in the agony of Advent. We anticipated Christ’s immanent arrival on Christmas Eve, singing Silent Night at candlelit services. We woke on Sunday morning, opened gifts with friends and family, and (some of us) made our way to church, where we shouted Joy to the World with what zeal we could. We celebrated the birth of Hope, the arrival of the Wonderful Counselor, with food, and family, and movie marathons (it was Lord of the Rings at our house). And, now that Christmas day has passed, and the New Year is just around the corner, I’m wondering what the implications are for the birth of Hope. What does it mean for the world that Christ is born? What does it mean for those of us who try to follow Jesus in our daily lives? It seems to me that there must be more to the birth of Hope than impotent platitudes about Jesus as our personal savior, or the promises that Jesus will heal the ills of our existential angst.

For much of American Christianity, Jesus has become an idol of comfort and the preservation of the status quo. At best Jesus asks us to be nicer at work, at worst Jesus mirrors all the ugliness of our brokenness and personal biases. There is a common refrain that if we will only accept Jesus into our hearts than all our personal suffering will be absolved. In this telling of the “Good News” (if it can even be called that) your suffering is your own fault, and the suffering of the world is a reflection of the unwillingness of individuals to make room for Jesus in their lives. Peter Rollins, in his book The Idolatry of God, calls this deferment, saying, “This strategy emphasizes techniques to help you step into the wholeness that you supposedly already have. In terms of Christianity, one is invited to attend conferences, read the latest book, pray more, read the Bible more, worship more, ad infinitum” [1]. This is a message heard over and over by Christians from churches, pastors, televangelists, and bloggers, especially in the realm of American Evangelicalism. And for many Christians, Christmas marks the day we celebrate the birth of this God-object Jesus, whose very purpose is to make us not feel so bad all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and it fails to accurately convey the powerful and radical implications of the Christmas story.

This is why I am so grateful for the Liturgy, and for those churches who follow it. The liturgical tradition simply refuses to let us become complacent. We are not allowed to pine after the Jesus who brings only wholeness and inner peace. We are confronted instead with a continuous story of disruption, whether we like it or not. This was made abundantly clear to me as I sat down for morning prayer, the day after Christmas, and was reminded of Saint Stephen. December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions, and celebrates the faith’s first martyr. It struck me as particularly profound and challenging to be honoring the death of a martyr the day after celebrating the birth of a savior. Somehow it seems out-of-place, and even inappropriate to move so quickly from joy to despair, but this is exactly what the liturgy asks of us.

The story of Stephen is found in the book of Acts. There were complaints among the followers of Jesus (post-Ascension) that certain widows were being neglected when food was given out, and the Apostles decided to appoint seven disciples to serve as the church’s social workers, Stephen chief among them. Some people began to argue with Stephen, and when he proved too strong a debater, they convinced the council that he was a blasphemer who spoke against the Law and the Temple. Before the council, Stephen gives a powerful speech, wherein he recounts the family history of Israel from Abraham to Moses, and then condemns those present for their consistent and persistent persecution of prophets saying:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Acts 7:51-53

Burn. The council thought so too, and they forcibly drug Stephen out of the city to be stoned. As they stoned him, Stephen called to Jesus, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

I thought about Stephen and what the Christmas story meant to him; what implications the incarnational event had for his life. Did Stephen accept Jesus into his heart and find that comfort and peace were his reward? Clearly not. Stephen found that the call of Jesus is most often disruptive, and even dangerous. He discovered that a life devoted to service and empowerment of other people will always run up against power that is derived from oppression and exclusion. He discovered that the birth of Hope, and the following of its call, threatens our lives as we know them. This does not sound like the pliant and peaceable Jesus that we hear so much about in American Christianity, who is obsessed only with how much we say we love him, and with our adherence to strict and manipulative legalism. The Jesus that called Stephen came to mess stuff up.

This seems to run counter to the popular assumption that Jesus’ primary purpose was to bring wholeness to a broken world. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We have domesticated Jesus for our own purposes, so that we can avoid the true implications of the Christmas story; that Being itself put on flesh and participated in human suffering, and in so doing calls us to a radical and dangerous way of life that includes, rather than excludes; offers mercy, rather than violence; that gives up our very lives for the sake of the Kingdom vision. Jesus destroys our conception of wholeness and offers us a new wholeness that looks an awful lot like brokenness. This is what Rollins means when he says:

“…instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we shall soon discover something much more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.”[2]

This invitation is the struggle of the Christian life and is absurdly difficult for us to embrace. Temptation and distraction are everywhere, and it is so easy to forget how it is that Christ calls us to live. For me, this is where the true power of the liturgy is made manifest. What the liturgy provides us is not wholeness, nor a practice that leads to wholeness; rather, it provides us with a rhythmic and persistent engagement with the stories of our Christ, the call to us as Christians, and the challenge to reject the falseness of our desire to be comforted. It is impossible to read the Psalms every day and find oneself truly comforted. Our prayers in the litany call us to consider the suffering of the world and our role in it. We receive the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and we are challenged daily by the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. I have found that in this practice, the Christmas story takes on a more radical and challenging dimension than it has in the past. It reveals that the birth of Hope sets spark to the world and breaks everything wide open, and it seems to me that if the Christmas story does not inspire us to radically rethink our way of being in the world and make us truly uncomfortable, we may want to read it a few more times. Peace.

[1] & [2]Rollins, Peter. The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. New York: Howard, 2013. Print.

 

 

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