The Advent season in the United States is typically ransacked by shopping, parties, visits with family, and the like. Perhaps worst of all, it can seem impossible to avoid the bombardment of holiday and Christmas-themed advertisement. People work overtime in order to earn a little extra to buy gifts for friends and family (and themselves). The ethos of the season can seem to be emite et labora, buy and work. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to affirm the understandably natural, knee-jerk condemnation of busyness as such.
Drawing upon the story of “difficult Father Nathaniel” from the recent Russian bestseller, Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon, I describe how, though busyness can be a spiritual distraction, “sometimes busyness itself can be askesis.”
Busyness can be the adversary of Advent, but it need not be. Instead, the Advent season can be a time for us to examine and practice how our busyness itself can be transfigured by the life of the Church, how our worldly work also may be liturgical labor, how when transfigured by the kingdom of God our busyness can also serve the common good.
The story of difficult Father Nathaniel, however, is worth visiting in further detail here as well. Hand in hand with complaints about the busyness of the season come complaints about the business of the season. (more…)
In today’s culture, there is always an abundance of news stories about the “War on Christmas.” In my commentary this week, I address that concern and the lack of understanding of the deeper meaning of Christmas. Here’s a highlight:
Every December cultural warriors mourn the incessant attacks on Christmas and secularism’s rise in society. News headlines carry stories of modern day Herods banning nativity scenes, religious performances, and even the word “Christmas.” Just as a majority of young people profess they will have less prosperity and opportunity than their parents, many people now expect less out of Christmas. Continual bickering over holiday messaging in corporate advertising itself points to a shrinking and limited Christmas.
Yet these problems are signs on the way to important truths, if we have the eyes to see. Record spending and debt, whether in Washington or the home, allude to a society trying to fill an emptiness of the heart. Even our disappointment in poor leadership in America reminds us that we crave a true King and are expectant of a greater day.
In 2010, I penned a related essay “Why the Nativity?” That post delves even deeper into the theology of the incarnation and the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Christmas is a hard time for many people because expectations for joy and changes in their life are so high. In my own life, I count myself among those that have had a difficult time at Christmas because I’m so reflective and I realize life isn’t always how I want it.
There is a sign in front of the church that I attend that reads, “Jesus is all you want, if Jesus is all you have.” I find that the more I deeply ponder the incarnation of Christ, the more I am amazed and my heart is transformed.
I quoted Charles Wesley in my commentary in where he called Christ the “desire of every nation,” and “joy of every longing heart.” The hymn is of course, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The words are beautiful and I’ve always loved Wesley’s hymns because they deal with the deepest hopes of the heart and he personalizes the person of Christ for all.
Increasingly the Nativity tends to be associated with the political, as the crèche and other overtly religious symbols are banished from the public square by public pressure or the courts. To some that communicates a baby savior with so little power he can’t even defeat the secular legal authorities who seek his removal. If God is out there, “He must be pretty weak,” could be a common refrain today.
Likewise in some churches the Nativity is seen as an activity for the children, rolled out for December performances as adults become detached from the spiritual and deeper theological significance. For too many of us, it takes on a fairy tale image. A new study by The Barna Group points to the obvious: American Christians are less theologically literate today than in the past.
There are economic consequences to the dechristianizing of the West as well. The drive and obsession for more stuff and gifts often seeks to fill a void opened by the loss of the Nativity and its meaning. Perhaps, the same could be said about the demise of fiscal sanity in Washington as well. Outrageous debt and deficit spending certainly says something about a level of national emptiness that some believe can be filled if government only spends more. There are polls now that suggest that young people do not have the same kind of optimism as their parents did about future success in life and their opportunity to prosper.
As so much seems to be crumbling around us, and yes, the loss of the Nativity in the public square serves as a symbol of that. It is, however, so insignificant when weighed against our inheritance.
Bethlehem, where Christ was born, literally means “House of Bread,” a good birthplace for somebody who came to us as “The Bread of Life.” “The Bread of Heaven came down to earth to feed the hungry,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The Incarnation of our Lord holds a level of mystery and is perplexing even to the wise. Martin Luther admitted that the works and vast wonder of this Incarnation would not be fully comprehended until “the blessed day of our redemption.”
Still, God appeared as an infant so tender and mild. Some might say Christ is weak for appearing as a baby in the manner that He did. But an overriding message of the manger is that God is merciful, nobody is afraid of an infant. The Wise Men came to the Nativity to worship the Wisest of Men (Matthew 2:11). The birth of Christ is about the Light of the World conquering fear, darkness, and despair.
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis:
The broadcast from Apollo 8 was the largest viewed television broadcast ever at that time. The dramatic footage from earth from a brand new vantage point captivated viewers across the globe. Likewise, seeing our life and this world anew draws on the remarkable power and promise of the Incarnation of our Lord. It has changed everything. It delivers the promise that God has and will restore everything in the manner in which it was intended. In the words of Isaiah 60: 19 & 20:
The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.
Yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press had an attention-grabbing feature graphic, which highlights an online interactive “game” that gives more information about each of the candidates for the “economic blame game” bracket.
Press Graphic/Milt Klingensmith
The four brackets are broken down by group, so the four major categories at fault are 1) the financial industry; 2) consumers; 3) government; and 4) inexplicable forces.
Notably absent are the media (except perhaps as personified in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”) and government over-regulation, including especially the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and variations on that theme in the intervening decades. To be sure, “deregulation” is a top seed on the government side, and makes the blame game Final Four. But the summary for that option manages to lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and his dictum: “Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem.”
The Press’ pick for the blame game champion is “Fear and Panic.” Writes Press copy editor Dan Hawkins, “So for your consideration, we rounded up 32 suspects and arranged them in a tournament bracket, as we did for White House scandals and the presidential race. For the first time, however, we decided to declare a winner. This crisis, this worst-of-the-worst competition, is too awful to leave without a scapegoat.”
There isn’t really a good representative for what I consider to be greatly culpable, the culture of consumptive capitalism (as opposed to democratic or entrepreneurial capitalism). Consumptive capitalism adds “spend all you can” to the more stable triumvirate of flourishing: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
And today comes news that confirms that the recession of the US economy began in December of 2007. The Press’ advice for the ordinary American citizen is “Don’t panic.” If that’s true for the everyday American, how much more so for the Christian.
One reality saves us from the necessity to assign blame to others and enables us to accept responsibility. As we begin the season of Advent in 2008, it is proper for us to reflect on the ultimate “scapegoat,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
This is not to say that we ignore the hard economic realities of our world. But the “fear and panic” created by material concerns need to be put into proper perspective, relativized and mitigated by hope in one whose kingdom will have no end.