Who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
He will purify the Levites
and refine them like gold and silver.
They will belong to the Lord,
presenting a righteous offering.
The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in ancient days and in former years. (Malachi 3:2-4)
Sometimes I think God leads different things to crash together in my life to make me realize things have to change. Three such things recently intersected for me, leading me to drag my family into a new way of marking these December/January holidays:
· I was writing a lesson entitled “God with us” for Advent, and the story I used to illustrate when I felt God with me came from the week leading into Easter, because I could not remember a single time in December I felt God was with me;
· I learned that in 2017, Americans went into debt $1100 per person (not per family) as a result of Christmas, and if they managed to pay it off in the year that followed, they did so in May or June, meaning Christmas enslaves us for at least half the year;
· I remembered that last year in December, a 30+ year old man asked me to tell him the Christmas story because he had never heard it, and I was both honored to share the story with him and horrified that I had to.
These things coincided in my mind and soul to make me stop dead in my tracks when it came to how I would approach this December and January, which contain the Christian seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I have shared this change with folks, and I keep having more requests to share this understanding, so I am putting it on my blog and I invite you to reflect on whether this might be possible for you as well.
Advent is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas in the Christian year, and it is also the beginning of the Christian year. However, culturally in this country, Advent is buried by Christmas, which we now begin celebrating as early as September or October, at least in the stores (who by the way have a vested interest in us shopping for Christmas for at least ¼ of the year, but more on that later).
Advent is a new beginning, but it is supposed to be a season of preparation. It is a darker season than we give it credit for, as it marks the time before Christ came into our lives. It is less a season of love, joy, hope, and peace (the four traditional themes for each Advent Sunday), and more a time of reflection, when we ask deep questions. What would my life be like without Jesus? Or, how must I prepare for Jesus to be born anew into my life?
We really should treat Advent more like we treat January in the broader culture. This is when we should make New Year’s resolutions, and they should be resolutions that prepare us to love and welcome Jesus. So yeah, I am not ready for Jesus to return, but even more than that, I am not ready to give a long lifetime to Jesus in service. My health is not great, and so yes, in December I am making diet and lifestyle changes to help me live a longer life in service to Jesus. And I look like a lunatic, because who starts a low carb diet in the season of cookies, candy, and pie? But you know what, that makes it a real discipline, as there are daily challenges to it, and it is a daily reminder to me (much like when I fast from something in Lent) that my faith should be organizing my life, rather than the demands of culture. It is helping me focus on Jesus instead of Hershey’s. It is also reminding me that I really don’t want to live a life without Christ, even if that means making some sacrifices now.
So I am also only going to Christmas parties that I am basically expected to attend because of work. I am not blowing out the decorations in my home. I am not spending extra money on things that ultimately are not really about preparing for Christ, but are instead crowding my life up with extra stress, keeping up appearances, and diverting my resources away from bringing Christ’s love to someone who needs to know it.
There is really only one Christmas story in the Bible, and it takes place in Luke 2. It is when Jesus is born, and the angels show up to tell the shepherds of the arrival of the savior. Then the shepherds go to the Holy Family, and tell them what the angels said. Mary ponders these things in her heart. Then the shepherds leave and go about praising God for what they have experienced.
Only 2 things happen at Christmas: a new family is created, and people worship. That is it. Outside of the noisy angels on the hillside, it is a fairly quiet scene, at least assuming Jesus isn’t a fussy baby. There are no gifts exchanged. Just a new family, and worship.
So shouldn’t Christmas also focus around those 2 things? First, we should worship. And worship should not be the thing we sandwich in between Aunt Sarah’s arrival from the airport and baking Christmas cookies. It should be what everything else revolves around. Second, we should spend real time with our family, whoever that family is. Because you see on Christmas, there were 2 people in that family who were biologically related, and one step-father. And then there were neighbors who showed up to spend time with this family. And of course a family of faith was created then too. So whoever your family is, spend intentional time with them on the one day when our world grinds to a halt and actually gives you time to spend together. And should that time be spent opening gifts and then going to our separate corners to play with whatever new fangled thing we have, or should it be spent together?
So how did we get the Christmas that we have today? Well, the history of Christmas ebbs and flows, but let’s take it back to its beginnings, because in those beginnings lies the reality we have today. (Note: the following description is my sort of snarky description of what probably occurred, and it is certainly an oversimplification of the matter). As the Christian church was deciding on our holidays, we faced a challenge: Jesus was probably born in the Spring, but he also died in the Spring. I can just see the gears turning in the minds of the early church leaders, “Hmm… Christmas and Easter in the same season. That’s a liturgical nightmare.” One of the holidays had to move, and Easter is tightly tied to Passover. Christmas was more flexible. Where to move it though? Hey, there is that winter solstice celebration called Saturnalia that happens around December 25. Why don’t we adapt that into Christmas, which will allow us to help convert folks from paganism to Christianity? They love Saturnalia, and we can just transform the holiday into one celebrating Jesus instead of Saturn. We can keep the merry-making and the gift exchanging that takes place around Saturnalia, and just place it in the context of marking Jesus’ birthday.
Now, I am all for a good conversion strategy, and I believe we are called to interpret our world in a way that we see God in it all the time. As long as it works, great! The problem is, Saturnalia has returned, and it is way louder than the Christmas story. How else do you explain the fact that a 30+ year old who has lived in this “Christian” culture his whole life has never heard the Christmas story?
There are real secular benefits to co-opting this story, chief among those being it gets us to spend ridiculous amounts of money, all in the name of being generous. But generosity is not just for generosity’s sake. In my faith, generosity is meant to be transformative. Honestly, Christmas generosity that revolves around the most expensive or greatest number of gifts has simply become a burden. I have too much crap, well-intended as it may have been, and I have given other people too much crap too. Lives are being changed, but not for the better. And other lives are suffering because too many of us have spent ourselves into debt rather than helping to meet the needs of those in trouble. And gift exchange isn’t even true for the Christmas story! For that we have to turn to…
The twelve days of Christmas run from December 25 to January 5. January 6 is Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men. It also marks when the Gentiles became part of the story of Jesus. For most of us Christians, then, this should be a High Holy Day, as we are now included in God’s salvation. But Western Christians mostly don’t even know Epiphany exists.
Since Epiphany is when the gifts actually show up, why not do the gift exchange then? Moving the gift exchange has three immediate results: it returns the intentionality to gift-giving (not just doing it because it is Christmas), it gives us a means to share the story with others again (I have been able to share the full Christmas story with more people this year than ever simply by saying, “I am almost finished Epiphany shopping”), and it allows us to shop the after-Christmas sales (well, let’s be practical too).
The other thing we have done this year in moving our celebration to Epiphany is that we have put a maximum 3 gift limit on those we shop for. A gift must be one (or more if combining into one gift) of each of these three things:
· Beautiful, like gold
· Practical, like frankincense (frankincense was a highly valuable commodity in Egypt, where the Holy Family would flee shortly after the wise men departed)
· Memorable, like myrrh (myrrh was used to anoint the dead, and was done out of honor and in memory of someone you cared for)
I have loved shopping this year, as it has forced me to think in two ways. When I find a gift, I ask, “Do I think this is beautiful/practical/memorable?” or “Do I think this person would think it is beautiful/practical/memorable?” I expect we will define them differently, but that in itself will allow us to share a moment together as someone opens a gift and I get to explain which of the three I thought it was. For instance, my husband is getting a guitar effects pedal from me, which I am guessing he will think is practical, but I think is beautiful, because my husband only plays the guitar when he needs to re-center his soul.
You know what else this practice has done for me? It has given me a stopping point to my shopping. I hit my three gifts for someone, and then I am done. You know what won’t happen this year? I won’t go into debt. I won’t be enslaved by Christmas, and that means I will be free to serve Jesus more readily in the coming year, helping me fulfill my Advent commitments.
I realize that I have the freedom of being the parent of a 16 year old, so Santa and Elf on the Shelf are not pressures for me. I am also not serving in a church right now, so I don’t have the pressure of long held traditions. But maybe God gave me this time and this place to reflect and then to share so that we can have a conversation about the true purpose of these seasons. Maybe if we took the time and refined them, burned off all that was unnecessary so we could bring an offering pleasing to the Lord, returned them to their anchor in Scripture, and then centered our faith in the midst of our culture, we could recover what is beautiful about these seasons again. And maybe, just maybe, we might feel God with us, even in December.