They showed a video at our church this past Sunday of teens in the youth group being interviewed about the various components of Christmas. I was repeatedly impressed by the kids who could clearly articulate what Christmas is about - the anticipation, the liberation, the redemption, the glory (I was really obsessed with one girl who defined glory as, “the earthly manifestation of divine presence” … I want to meet her parents!).
It made me think of Junia in 12-15 years. How would she answer those questions? What habits - throughout the year and specifically during this season - are we cultivating now that will equip her with an accurate understanding of why Christmas is a big deal?
I know the way I celebrate Christmas as a privileged, white American in the 21st century is far removed from anything having to do with Christ’s first coming. I struggled a little with this disconnect over the years but this year the discrepancies became impossible for me to gloss over. I think it has to do with my realization of the refuge crisis and acknowledging that Jesus had more in common with the Syrian (and other) refugees that he did with me.
I don’t say this to somehow baptize the suffering of these displaced people and to make it holy by drawing a divine parallel. Suffering, now and in his own day, breaks Christ’s heart and I think this heart broken-ness is what’s been missing from my Christmases.
I have always been an obsessive “Christmas person” - this was especially evident when we lived in New York and holiday celebration options were over-abundant. Ice skating, Christmas trees, holiday markets, seasonal shows - Broadway, symphony, ballet, opera - gingerbread houses, department store windows … if my every free moment wasn’t filled with something holiday-themed, I felt I was missing out. I truly enjoy doing all these things and I felt like this was how I best celebrated and experienced the season.
This year, I kept coming up against this image of Jesus as a refugee, as a baby born into tenuous if not terrifying circumstances; growing up, being persecuted and seeing his people persecuted. And I kept thinking of my own baby - everything has become more weighty since having a baby. Suddenly I want to be sure I’m setting good precedents to reinforce the core principles of how we want to raise her. Do I want her to think that Christmas is about STUFF, or do we want her to understand the meanings behind the entire season?
Of course most people would probably choose the second option, but this is clearly difficult to do. How do I, in my social-location, attempt to identify with Christ’s position in the world 2000 years ago, or even with people today whose lives likely look more like Christ’s than mine does? How do I give back, pay it forward, reach out, elevate the name of Christ, without just doing lip service?
Here’s what I’ve come up with, at least for this year. Most ideas are re-purposed if not completely plagiarized, from others who have thought about this before me ~
1). Pay more attention to advent. Sure, we hear the little blurb about each candle read at church and maybe we even light candles ourselves at home. But I wasn’t raised in a tradition that gave a lot of weight to the liturgical year and it’s something I’m trying to rectify.
Advent is about anticipation: looking forward to Christ’s eventual kingdom on earth, and considering our role in bringing that kingdom to the here and now. How can I demonstrate to others that Christ is present with us in our sufferings today, even while longing for the day when suffering is no more?
2). Observe the 12 Days of Christmas. This is part of the answer to my question posed above, and continues my attempt to live liturgically. Did you know that in the liturgical calendar Christmas Day is the beginning of the celebration? So this year, we're copying Ann Voskamp and looking to bring Christ’s love to people in tangible ways during these 12 days specifically.
We’ve brainstormed a dozen or so ideas for how we can do this - from purchasing a cow for a village through World Food Program, to cleaning out our closets and donating what we don’t need, to cooking a meal for our city’s less fortunate, to baking cookies to give to our neighbors. We’ve tried to come up with expressions of celebration that don’t just involve donating money, but really ask something of our time, gifts, and selves.
3). Consider the gifts we already have. I put a big piece of butcher paper on the wall and wrote: “What gifts has God given us this year?” We’ve been contributing our own thoughts, and invite others who visit us over the holiday season to contribute as well. Ryan even suggested leaving it up all year and writing things down as they happen.
4). Change our traditions. I read about someone who cooked food from different countries / ethnic groups each year for their Christmas Eve dinner as a way to learn more about a foreign place in the world. We’re stealing this idea too and this year, we’ll be cooking up a Syrian meal as a small, simple way to show solidarity with that part of the world.
I really struggled with some of these. Would giving for 12 days make us feel like we’d done our part for the year and make us less likely to live with an open hand the rest of the year? Would cooking a Syrian meal make us feel like we’d checked the box when it came to reminding ourselves to identify with those suffering around us? What Ryan pointed out was that we don’t do great with practicing compassion for others as part of our family culture. Of course that’s something we’d like to change, but even if we completely drop the ball the rest of the year, we will have done this batch of things during Advent season.
That’s a little bit of a cop out, and I hope that these endeavors are the kick-start to a more empathetic, compassionate year, rather than the high point of the year to come. But I realized I shouldn’t let the fear that these new traditions would turn out to be lip service keep me from attempting to implement them.
In his session at AAR Jurgen Moltmann said “resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist.” I find this particularly apropos for what we’re trying to do. My resistance and protest to being swept along in the currents of “Christmas culture” may not be perfect, but they are an attempt to live out my belief that this season is undergirded in the hope of Christ’s presence in the world. I yearn to make this hope a tangible, feast-able manifestation in our lives.