Monday, December 13, 2010

Irony, Ambivalence and Christmas

Sermon preached December 12, 2010
Advent 3 Year A

Good Morning.

So here we are, once again, with Christmas hurtling toward us like a snowball headed for our face; we are caught up in the excitement of the season even as we anticipate the pain it is sure to also bring us…

Whether that pain is felt in the emptiness of our pocketbooks or the emptiness we feel in the massive, glittering rush toward consumerism, we feel it. Even as we see the joy on the faces of the children; even as we remember our own excitement when as children we knew that Santa Claus was on his way – even in the midst of all of that, Christmas can also feel like a time of loss, as we remember loved ones and better times.

Which means it is time, once again, for my annual sermon on ambivalence and irony, and the fact that it’s perfectly okay to hold onto two completely inconsistent and incompatible truths simultaneously; how it is perfectly acceptable to mutter Bah Humbug even as we shout Merry Christmas…

They say that it’s a mark of intelligence and emotional maturity if you can hold two contradictory positions at the same time.

Albert Einstein, for example, made his great breakthrough in physics when he realized that an object can, in fact, be both at rest and in motion. Apparently this insight led him to the theory of relativity.

And so it is about Christmas: Within the giant gift bag of Christmas there are so many contradictory elements and feelings that it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t explode.

In one simple holiday we find boatloads of generosity and also of greed; hackneyed sentimentalism and thrilling new insights; indecent waste and profound simplicity.
This is a time, in other words, for a healthy appreciation of ambivalence and irony.

Consider, for example, this wonderful irony: that Christians have historically been the biggest opponents of Christmas.

It started, of course, long before the birth of Jesus, with our suspicion of paganism. 600 years before Jesus was born, pagans would cut down small trees this time of year, bring them into their homes, and decorate them with silver and gold.

It looked like a nice thing to do and pretty soon the Jews at the time of King Josiah started to do it, too; that is, until the prophet Jeremiah found out about this and condemned the practice as a dangerous flirtation with paganism. (Jer. 10: 2-4). If Jeremiah had had his way, all this decoration of trees would have ended way before Jesus came along.

800 years later, in Roman culture, the same issue comes up. The festival of the winter solstice lasted a full week, during which time the birth of the god-man savior was celebrated, and many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas – the giving of gifts, lots of decorations and parties and general revelry – were practiced. Depending on the customs of your local household or village, you had your choice of divine-human savior gods, including Appolo, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Osiris, Theseus, and half a dozen others. At some point a little consistency was needed, so in the year 270 or so AD the Emperor Aurelian blended all of these Pagan solstice celebrations of the god-man into a single festival called the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" and established the date for these celebrations as December 25.

So of course, many of the early Christians simply declared December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ’s birth and adopted all of these parties as birthday parties for Jesus, and everyone was happy.

Except Tertullian, the great church father, who warned his flock in the strongest of terms not to imitate the pagan traditions. Apparently his voice was not heard over the singing of Christmas carols.

14 centuries after Tertullian, the debate still raged, in the form of Oliver Cromwell campaigning against the “the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols and decorated trees – just as the Puritan founders of our country fulminated against the “pagan mockery” of Christmas traditions.

And so we should not be surprised when we hear about Christians today making the same ancient arguments against Christmas – and we suspect they will get about as far with their arguments as Tertullian did.

It does make you wonder, though, whether Bill O’Reilly and all the other righteous defenders of Christmas have studied this issue as carefully as they might. At any rate, they certainly don’t seem to appreciate irony very much, which is proof, perhaps, of Emerson’s saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

We know, of course, that Christmas did not really take over as the massive marketing bonanza it is today until just over a century ago. In the 19th Century “schools and businesses remained open, [and] Congress met in session...” during Christmas. “Major American denominations – Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists and Congregationalists – either ignored the holiday or actively discouraged it...”

As for the Episcopalians… well, let’s just say that we have never been very good Puritans, just as we have always cherished a healthy sense of irony. The Puritans came to this land to get away from people like us, and were dismayed when we followed them to the New World, what with our fondness for spiked eggnog and suspiciously pagan party favors.

All of which leads us to the scripture this morning – which I’m sure you were wondering about – which is simply to point out the wild disparity between Christmas as it is practiced, and Christmas as it is intended by the historical heart of our faith. Because, while the rest of the Western world gorges itself in an orgy of consumerism, we are asked by our Bible to stop for a moment and reflect on the true meaning of all of this, which has to do with the irrepressible hope for justice for the poor. It has to do with the unquenchable longing for a godly revolution; the overturning of this corrupt present order; the final establishment of God’s reign over a world that has sold its soul for a few shiny trinkets.

While the rest of the world rushes headlong into the never-ending quest for the year’s hottest new iPhone, we are asked by Isaiah to turn our thoughts to those who have nothing.

Isaiah’s people have been defeated by the iron boots of Babylon; they have been removed from their homes and forced to live in a foreign land; for fifty years they have been living in exile; the very memory of what they have lost is beginning to fade; Isaiah, the great prophet of God, has been dead for many years; people are wondering how they could ever have thought of themselves as God’s chosen people; their once proud and great religion is a fading memory.

That’s when one of Isaiah’s old disciples, whom we call 2nd Isaiah, catches a whiff of hope, and stands up in the midst of the people and dares to proclaim these words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

Our God is a God of hope... for those who have nothing left but hope.

And so it is that, 500 years later, in the darkness of a brutal occupation, in a time when any reasonable person would give up on hope, Jesus suggests that we adjust our perspective; and pay attention to what is happening among the poor:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

When will we know that Christmas has arrived? Not when the calendar hits the arbitrary date of Dec. 25; but when a family in Haiti is able to move out of a tent into a house. When will Christmas arrive? When girls in Afghanistan are allowed to go to school without fear of being shot by the Taliban. When will Christmas arrive? When perhaps the flood waters stop rising because we have found a solution to global warming.

In the midst of our dread and anxiety, we proclaim a Christmas hope. It has come to us to bear this hope into the world; that is our job. We proclaim our hope, not just for ourselves, but especially for the poor and the dispossessed. This is not a hope in our own strength, but in the grace and mercy of God, who even now is coming into the world to save us.

This is Christmas – to stand, despite our weak hands and feeble knees; to sing out, despite our fear; to proclaim our hope, despite our ambivalence; to stake our lives on God, despite our healthy sense of irony. And so we stand with 2nd Isaiah as we proclaim his words:

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

May it be so. Amen.

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