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.

 

 

The Call of Christmas

Christmas is just a few days away and for people like me, the race is on to find those last-minute gifts on Amazon and pray that they will arrive on time. I do this every year; I think, “Oh I have plenty of time”, and then the looming specter of Christmas appears and I’m thrown into a panic. I’ve never been particularly crazy about the Christmas season, especially as it is celebrated in American culture. It’s just too stressful. There is so much pressure to have good cheer and to be obnoxiously joyful despite whatever reality you may be dealing with, and to pick the perfect present so your family and friends know how much you love them. It feels fundamentally inauthentic to me and so I get grumpy and cynical. It’s tradition.

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the swirl of consumerism surrounding the entire season of Christmas. I know that everything that can ever be said about the destructive relationship between Christmas and money has already been said, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think it’s an important conversation for us to be having, particularly in light of a 2016 that has been, in a word or two, a nightmarish dumpster fire. Just this week we’ve seen atrocity and horror in the city of Aleppo, the assassination of a Russian diplomat, continued nonsense and dangerous rhetoric from the President-elect, and a string of violent attacks across Europe. And that’s just the stuff that’s made the news. So, as I anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming into this broken world, I’m wondering, what is our response? Are we to ring in the arrival of salvation, personified in the vulnerability of a child, with debauched and wanton expenditure, and the monetization of our dearest relationships? Or is there another way?

My first semester at seminary came to a close last week, and I found myself, for the first time in months, able to read a book of my own choosing. I decided to reread Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, which might not be the kind of escape I was initially looking for, but which nevertheless brings me joy. In the early part of the book Tillich describes three primary types of anxiety and the corresponding periods in history when each type was dominant (to be clear Tillich’s view of history and the corresponding anxieties are reflections primarily through a Western lens): the anxiety of fate and death and its expression at the end of ancient civilization, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation predominant in the middle ages, and our modern expression of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. As I read Tillich’s description I wondered if this was still the true expression of anxiety for our time. Is it a fundamentally spiritual anxiety that we see infecting our politics, economics, and relationships? The pull towards nationalism and fundamentalism on a national scale seems to confirm this, and Tillich’s words seem to describe so much of our political landscape:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference…

…Then man [sic] tries another way out…he tries to break out of this situation, to identify with something transindividual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively” 1.

Tillich’s assessment seems to me all too familiar as I consider the rise of the radical right, the proliferation of “fake news”, and the general defensiveness on all sides of political, religious, and cultural ideologies. The authoritative imposition of meaning on individuals seems to me to be a phenomenon encountered on both sides of our political and religious discussions, and I have myself felt the anxiety associated with this desire to have questions answered in a way that supports my particular community. This desire to combat the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness drives so much of our interactions as citizens, family members, and consumers. And, it is this final category where I believe our battle with emptiness comes into direct and powerful authoritarian conflict with our spiritual lives, and with our “celebration” of Christmas in particular.

In Tillich’s estimation, people who have had beliefs breakdown or worldviews blown apart are driven to devotion after devotion as the objects of their devotion inevitably prove to be lacking. However, it seems that the power of consumer culture and the idol of wealth is that where other objects of devotion seem to have limits or boundaries, our devotion to wealth and consumption simply draws us in deeper and deeper by offering more, ever more. We don’t seem to hit that wall wherein we experience the true emptiness of wealth and consumption because we have been convinced that there is no such wall. There is always more to be had, more to buy, more to accumulate. It’s a kind of fail-safe in the economic system; if you don’t feel fulfilled than just keep consuming more.

Not only that, but our economic system and the producers of goods actively facilitate the kind of anxiety we are discussing so that a solution can be sold to compensate. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, says:

“This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what the General Motors people called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ How can we be content with a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough, I am happy with what I have.’’ 2

The anxiety of emptiness has become a tool of marketers and producers and is used against us as a way of propping up a fundamentally empty idol. And yet, it is this idol that we lift especially high as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing our desire to give good gifts to our friends and family. I am not suggesting that we all renounce wealth and material goods. I am simply asking that we examine the cognitive dissonance between commemorating the birth of Jesus (who spoke far more about the dangers of wealth and unjust economics than he did any other topic) with devotion to the principles of consumption. I think we may be missing the point. We consume at astronomical levels to honor the Christ who said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is something I simply cannot reconcile, and yet I do this very thing every single year. I stress and agonize over what gifts to get for family and friends, making up arbitrary dollar amounts in my head that, somehow, are supposed to accurately convey my feelings of love and affection. I spend money that, frankly, I don’t have because I would be ashamed to say I can’t afford that. I day-dream about the gifts I might get from others, and feel disappointment if I do not receive what I expected. I contribute to an inequitable and immoral economic system that targets particular communities, and makes silent the voices of the oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this I sit in the pew and sing praises to the Christ who has been born in a manger, and who’s life and call will challenge me to a radical reexamination of my world and my place in it. For the love of God, there must be a better way.

I have been watching coverage of the siege of Aleppo and wondering what it means for me to be a Christian, at Christmas, in this particular time in history. Is there, perhaps, some greater responsibility calling out to us from the story of the Nativity, the flight to Egypt (this story should give us all shivers right about now), and the slaughter of the innocents? Can I celebrate Christmas in the way I always have if I am aware of the incomprehensible suffering of the Syrian people, or the suffering of those neighbors nearest to me? After all, what is it that I am celebrating? Christmas is not a birthday party. Christmas is the declaration that hope has entered a broken and frightening world in the person of Jesus. That “…a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christmas invites us to participate in the saving work of God, as the hands and feet of the very Christ we celebrate. This invitation is to serve, and to serve those among us who need it most. This requires generosity, but unlike the false generosity of consumption and wealth, the generosity exemplified by Christ is sacrificial and self-emptying. This generosity seeks justice and is generally unconcerned with our own comfort. This generosity is hard, but it is what we are called to do.

This is what Martin Luther spoke of in his famous Christmas sermon on the Nativity:

“There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem…and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided…Why does he [sic] not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is altogether false to think that you have done much for Christ, if you do nothing for those needy ones.”

Ouch. So, as we gather with our family and friends this Christmas, and as we sit in the pews on Christmas morning, consider the ways in which you might declare the hope of Christ in the world. How does our celebration of the birth of Christ inspire us to embody that hope in our own lives? Can we take a break from our culturally-crafted-consumer-Christmas and consider instead where it is that hope and light are needed? How can we engage a world as people emboldened by the compassion, mercy, simplicity, and justice of Christ? I think that if we begin to reframe the ways in which we celebrate and remember Christmas, we may find that the anxiety and fear that pushes us ever deeper into the idolatry of wealth and consumption begins to fade, and that we discover instead the true implications of the Christmas story; hope, generosity, love, and justice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have presents to wrap…

Merry Christmas.

 


1.Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1952. Print.

2.Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.

3.Luther, Martin. Sermons Of Martin Luther The. Ada, MI: Baker Group, 2000. Print.