Making space in the Advent/Christmas wars

Making space in the Advent/Christmas wars December 15, 2014

nativity_setThere’s a war during the Christmas season that’s different than the supposed “war on Christmas” that people are waging when they say they want for your holy days to be happy. This other war is fought between clergy and other theo-nerds who are militantly committed to following the liturgical calendar which means not singing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve and those who say liturgy, schmiturgy, as long as people are getting saved, who cares what we sing when. The battle-lines break down in interesting ways that deviate from the usual culture war entrenchments, though progressives somewhat tend to go high-church and evangelicals somewhat tend to go low-church. Normally, I’m opposed to early Christmas carol singing because I think Advent is supposed to be about acknowledging all that is not right in the world instead of whitewashing reality with “the most wonderful time of the year,” but as I was watching a heated debate in that most charitable of all internet forums, the United Methodist Clergy facebook group, I saw a good friend from seminary speak up in defense of Christmas carols from a perspective I hadn’t considered.

Specifically, my friend Josefina wrote:

I refuse to let my “Christmas” be held hostage to the Advent calendar when our entire country is grieving, divided, and living in fear of the police ~ spend your energy praying for the good police officers stuck in the middle of this mess… surely there is something that aligns more with things that break the heart of God than when we sing out Christmas songs!

And that pretty much blew my mind. Because what I hadn’t considered is the thought that people who are going through difficult times might really be comforted by singing Christmas carols in the same way that Israelites were comforted by the manically joyful psalms that they sang in the midst of hardship or the way that African American gospel music has always constituted an upbeat, rebellious fist-pump against oppression by emphatically declaring the victory of God’s deliverance.

I personally like to sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again during Advent. Because we are a people in exile living under a corrupt, evil empire that is never more evil and corrupt than during a season of disgusting mass consumption that has co-opted what was supposed to be the birthday party for a dirt-poor baby born in an animal feeding trough that’s supposed to give hope to filthy Judean shepherds and similar social outsiders throughout human history. We need a messiah to come and rescue us from our disgusting Babylonian civilization and its Christmas muzak. To me, when I hear Christmas carols, they feel like turning the very real messy incarnation of God into a quaint, domesticated Norman Rockwell painting. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” sounds like something that happens on a lovely snowy evening in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not ancient Palestine.

And yet, I have to respect the fact that these songs provide comfort to people who are hurting. I don’t experience it myself, but it happens apparently. In my privilege, I don’t need to be comforted. I need to be disquieted so that I can be part of the advent of the new world Christ has established that doesn’t seem any less fragile than a baby in a manger. To me, the loud Christmas muzak that all the stores are playing doesn’t have a damn thing to do with this fragile new world. To me, it suffocates the true spirit of Christmas by imposing a mandatory peppiness on us. I’m not going to judge people for singing Christmas carols early, but what I will not tolerate is a Christmas that bullies wounded people into putting on really big, fake smiles because that’s the prescribed method for getting into the holiday spirit.

Whatever else Advent is, it needs to create space. If it lifts your spirits to sing Christmas carols, knock yourself out. If you’d rather spend the month abiding in the desperate hope of Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, that’s more my speed. Just let others have space to welcome Jesus the way that they need to do so. And not only that, but proactively create space for feelings that aren’t gypper and cheery. One of the more meaningful worship services they have at Burke United Methodist Church where I used to serve is the Blue Christmas service in which people who are mourning loss are given the space to grieve; we decorate a blue artificial Christmas tree with ornaments reminding us of the people we’ve lost. At the same time, I don’t want to shoot down anyone’s balloon who is genuinely joyful and excited about Christmas. My sons are super-giddy. They made us decorate for Christmas even though we haven’t completely made it out of our moving boxes yet. Their joy needs space too. It too is a totally legitimate part of Advent.

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  • Josh Magda


    One approach to Advent is to practice a quiet, yearning, and contemplative, and hence countercultural, December. Another is to go along with the overculture “whole hog” into the traditional communal Christmas activities. For me, Advent is a celebration of and preparation for further Incarnation. Incarnation isn’t limited to Jesus, but is the cosmic mystery celebrating the union of Eros and Agape, Heaven and Earth, God and Humanity, Flesh and Spirit; Incarnation is the Christ in all things, or Creation’s sacred depths.

    And the Gift that Christ enjoys giving more than any other is the Gift of Beloved Community, or “Life” for short. So during Advent I honor, among other things:

    Active Love
    The blessedness of community
    Remembering “what really matters”
    Infancy and babies and newness
    Gift Giving
    Art and Ritual
    Creativity and Light surrounded by darkness and no-thingness
    Sacred Music
    Imagination and Wonder
    Innocence and the return to Innocence
    God’s blanket permission to further enjoy this good world.

    To modify Bill Clinton slightly, there is nothing wrong with Creation that cannot be solved by what is right with Creation. What is right with Creation is Christ: Christ is our Life, our Love, the Heart of our Universe, our basic Nature. The Gospel is a call to give, to heal, to celebrate, to sustain, Life. The other Church seasons address the healing and transformation of Creation, rightfully so. Advent and Christmas are, for myself and most people, a season to celebrate the wonder of issness we call Life, for its own sake, a Life that, prior to its problem set, is Very Good indeed.

  • Josh Magda


    The incarnational truth of Christmas can include its most common practice: the exchange of gifts, even though this practice is frequently rejected by progressives (for good and holy reasons). The gift giving tradition began when Nicholas paid the dowry in secret for a young woman who could not afford it. In other words, it began with an act of social justice that was also indistinguishable from the giving of an earthly, practical gift.

    The gift St. Nicholas brings us is the freedom from the dualism that would have us divide the spiritual from the material and the practical from the extravagant, and the family or individual from the tangible blessings that come into their lives and help to make them human. All of it is Sacred and worthy of honor. Gift giving has always been basic to our humanity. Life itself is the greatest gift. This most common of Christmas traditions joins in the long tradition of human feasting and gift giving that acknowledges, celebrates, and extends the joy of Being in a communal context during Sacred time, including to people whom we love or know that may not be in our immediate perimeter, and even through the most mundane of means: the giving and receipt of the tools that we use to work, or more interestingly, to play and delight us and our children (which is one reason why consumer electronics are so popular at Christmas- they are toys for adults, that operate seemingly by magic).

    In a society that is starved for Being, we should find a way to responsibly and yet also ecstatically greatly surpass consumerism at its petty approach to gift giving, not dispense with gift giving altogether. Gifts, like life, and like candy, do not have to have a point to be Good.

    I honor the other ways we have of touching the Center during this season, including refraining from extensive gift giving. To me, there are other periods of the year that do that for us (Lent, for instance). The Gospel during Advent has more in common with a sack of beautiful toys given by jolly old grandfatherly and grandmotherly saints, who have not let the pressures of life steal their joy and desire to give, than it does with quietism.

    As with all the Whos down in Whoville, Christmas can come without any presents at all. Yet it’s interesting that when the Grinch discovers the “little bit more of Christmas,” the first thing he does is bring the presents back, and together, he and the entire community celebrate around a banquet table with all of the presents in tow. Gee, where have I heard the banquet table analogy before? Let me think…

    In other news, I like and will drink my coffee black… but only when cream and sugar are unavailable.

  • Matthew 15:8-9

    ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are but rules taught by men.’