Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Holidays

I have an idea for a short story. The main conceit involves a faceless, unnamed Christmas shopper who gets into an argument with Jesus about what is more proper to say during the yuletide season, "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas." I can just imagine so many generic, sincere, and earnest Christians getting into an argument about their level of support for Christmas with the guy whose birth we are celebrating. I'm not saying that Jesus isn't interested in protecting the "true meaning" of his birthday and all. It just seems that Christ is a lot more tolerant of those who refuse to acknowledge him than those who claim to want to be like him. I know this mostly because of the influx of my Facebook friends who became a fan of "I say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays" within the last three weeks. I am utterly convinced that joining that group is like unringing a bell. Every time you do, an angel loses his wings.

I didn't write that short story, though. Mostly because I wrote this essay instead and kind of stole my own thunder if that is something you can possibly do. (Maybe I will write it later and this essay will become a really cool prequel-type commentary on what I was trying to express.) Really, I decided to write an essay because I am better at that and the last time I wrote a short story I'm pretty sure I was in fifth grade and the main characters were a dog and a cat who talked and spoke English but couldn't spell all that well.

Chuck Klosterman concludes his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs with a discussion of the born-again worldview, a subject he feels educated enough to discuss based mostly on a recent reading of the Left Behind series.

There is no sophisticated reason for believing in anything supernatural, so it really comes down to believing you're right.  This is another example of how born agains are cool--you'd think they'd be humble, but they've got to be amazingly cocksure.  And once you've crossed over, you don't even have to try to be nice; according to the born again exemplar, your goodness will be a natural extension of your salvation.
This is ultimately what causes Klosterman to reject Christianity out of hand.  He can't believe that such a thing is possible.  That doing good would just be a natural outpouring of conversion.  Of course, no one believes this.  Not even Christians.  Otherwise, we wouldn't be constantly consciously trying to do so many "good" things.

I'm a sucker for a good cause.  Like. Honestly. Can't. Say. No.

Salvation Army guy at the front door of Walmart.  Hit you up on the way in and on the way out.  Dig wells in the bush?  Sure, I'll text SAVE to 56789 and give you $5.  I mean, how can I not?  I just spent $15 on iTunes because I was bored.  Am I really going to deny AIDS medication to destitute children in sub-Saharan Africa so I can download obscure EPs from Never Shout Never?  Buy books for kids who need to learn to read at the checkout at Barnes & Noble?  How could I live with myself if these kids didn't get to hear the same stories about big red dogs that I did (or their 2009 equivalents)?

Why am I this way?  Well, guilt mostly.  I still haven't figured out if this makes me a really good Christian or a really bad one.  Probably both ,but the point is that I am infected with the same virus as everyone else that causes a crying out from deep within my soul saying, "DO SOMETHING!"

While I am sure it is oversimplification, most of the infirmities of the human condition originate from two core diseases most economically labeled as rebellion and religion.  A quick definition of rebellion would be trying to do the wrong thing and a quick definition of religion would be trying to the right thing.  If the rebellion that has forever separated us from God is solved at the foot of the cross, then our problems with religion are solved in a manger.

Almost none of the Christians I know understand the "true meaning" of Christmas.  The reason for this is because instead of doing our job and just waiting on Jesus to be born, we are constantly trying to do stuff.  It is amazing how easy it is to be tempted to do the wrong thing when doing the right thing isn't leading to our preferred results.  H.L. Mencken put it this way, "Every normal man is tempted at some point to spit on his hands, raise the black flag, and begin slitting throats."  That is no way to live a life of patience, humility, and serenity.  Nor do I expect to soon read that quote scribbled into the bottom of a Christmas card under a colorful picture of a crèche.  Yet instead of pausing to reflect on the promised birth of Christ, we spend Christmas trying to get all militant and enforcing our spiritual beliefs on others.  We make our family and friends endure our awkward, is-everyone-down-with-this prayers and represent our piety by boycotting stores who would dare to say "Happy Holidays!" no matter how jovially.  We capitalize the "Christ" in "CHRISTmas" because that's what you do if you are truly holy and near to the promised infant. 

It's going to be pretty hard to get the Christ out of Christmas as long as we maintain the name and keep celebrating it on the date widely associated with his birth.  We make the commercialization of Christmas a tale of blasphemy and while surely a shameful development, commercialism is a poor adversary for the King of Kings.  Commercialism is a pretty powerful force in the modern world but it is still pretty hard to compete with virgin births and supernatural celestial events.  We've anointed Jared commercials as an enemy not because they are endlessly annoying (seriously, how is it possible to make even the expression of love so repugnant?) but because religion requires an enemy.

Wakey! Wakey! demonstrates religion's need to justify itself in the song "War Sweater."

Battle lines drawn if you wonder which side speaks the truth
then look closely to which speaks from pride
I love you. I swear it. I would never lie...
But I fear for our lives and I fear your closed eyes...

You wear your religion like a War Sweater.
You ask for the truth, but you know you could do so much better,
and you sat on your fences, you've screamed no retreat...
So now what will your legacy be?
Here we are at the dawn of advent awaiting the promised Prince of Peace and somehow we have made Christmas about declaring a petty American culture war.  We know the Christ child as the Lamb of God, comparatively docile among the types of farm animals, so what makes us so eager to take up arms?  If anyone is guilty of taking Christ out of Christmas, it is American Christians who would rather insert an angrier version of Jesus ready to win the culture on behalf of reformed theologians and then run for President.  It is staggering how much our version of what Jesus would do if he were here today differs from the life he actually lived while on the earth.  How did we get here to this place?

In the whole story of the birth of Christ, the only person who seems to truly understand the significance of the event is the mother, Mary.  Upon being visited by an angel, which had to be a pretty mystifying experience in itself, and then being told all manners of craziness mostly surrounding the fact that she would give birth though a virgin she simply responds, "I am the Lord's servant.  May it be to me as you have said."  Mary, of course, is also the one who will be jeopardizing her relationship, be mocked by society, and shunned by her family when she tries to repeat this ridiculous virgin birth nonsense to others.  Yet, she is the picture of serenity and patience.  That kind of faith helps you understand why some people venerate Mary to such a degree. 

The difference between waiting and acting is the difference between love and romance.  Love is quiet, patient, almost passive.  There might not be a greater beauty on earth than a still silence shared between lovers who desire nothing more than to be together.  Romance may have all the bells and whistles but the most hopeless of romantics only dreams to ultimately share those quiet moments.  If we could only learn to wait on the birth of Jesus, we might also learn to value the waiting moments as the sweetest time we would ever spend with God.