Every preacher has a sermon ready for this weekend or next in a folder labeled “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The theme is such a cliché that it is better to leave the folder in a file cabinet, away from the pulpit. Ordinary lay people know how to sufficiently navigate December’s commercialism. And who says that Christ is not in the office parties, the shopping for gifts, the decorating, the baking and all the rest? For those who falter, there’s a how-to book: Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson (Harper Collins).
The entire “Put Christ in Christmas” movement, now championed by President Donald Trump, is misguided. It shows a lack of faith in the Incarnation. The error is an easy one to make. I catch myself on occasion saying something like, “Bring Christ to the Marketplace.” Although I don’t use the phrase “re-Christianize society,” I might nod in agreement when I see it in an essay.
Christ is already in the world and he cannot be removed, no matter how corrupt or indifferent people may be. A Christian is supposed to dispose himself or herself to God’s presence in the world; a lifetime task. Secondly, a Christian is supposed to assist others see the divine presence by making the world better match God’s plan for it.
The late November shampoo of our church carpets, the enhanced December décor of the church, the well-sung Advent hymns, the evocative Advent liturgy that makes use of Isaiah and early parts of the four gospels—all of these nourish us and prepare the way for the glory of Christmas. But the Bethlehem story itself points to the truth that God is most intimately available in the comings-and-goings of ordinary families, among unremarkable workers and especially among the poor.
Yes, the crèche in our home, in front of the church and in many public squares (including here in Chicago) is a visual reminder of God’s Incarnation. But the figurines in those displays are inanimate. The living Christ includes all the retail clerks who stack merchandise and direct shoppers. These workers, please understand, do not have to consciously exude Christianity. Indeed, some are members of other religious traditions; others do not worship at all. Yet, Advent is seeing Christmas in them and then improving their world. For example, don’t shop on Sunday so that workers have Sabbath time.
Christ is the worker who sews the dress shirt that goes into a gift box. That worker is likely overseas and may well labor in a sweatshop. Christ is the worker in a Thailand shrimp house who washes and packages the little fish for the hors d’oeuvre tray at the office party. That worker is probably a slave. As an Advent discipline, only eat shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico or from a U.S. aqua-farm.
Christ is any family that can’t find a room at Mar-a-Lago, or at the Hilton or even at the Route 20 Motel. Christ is anyone who is not welcome at the family table, likely because that person is associated with too much sorrow and discord. During December, many Christians donate food or money for the care of the homeless. Get a closer look at Christ by volunteering at the pantry or shelter.
A few years ago I was in a Milwaukee shopping mall during Advent. Or better to say, my wife was shopping in Milwaukee; I found a bench inside the mall. A Pakistani-American woman and her baby sat down next to me. An older, well-dressed woman approached us and presumably mistaking me for the father said, “You are so lucky. This child is a great hope to us today.” How did she know?
Over 2000 years ago there was another baby. This one conceived out of wedlock to under-employed refugees. This baby’s life was in political danger and the family had to spend time in a foreign country with no green cards. In a sense Jesus did almost nothing that was extraordinary. He went about, however, doing the unexpected: showing kindness to strangers, preaching subversively, associating with oddballs. Advent is about looking for the greatest in the unexpected. It is about great hope on a bench at a mall in downtown Milwaukee.
Advent is preparation for Christmas. Christmas is preparation for the day after Christmas.