I am not a fan of the way we Americans do Christmas. Most everything about this season bugs me, as in Bah Hum-bug! How do I hate it? Let me count the ways: Black Thanksgiving week consumer mania, Christmas lights that mysteriously become tangled and dysfunctional while tucked in their storage boxes, frozen fingers putting said lights up outdoors, and temporary outbursts of December charity to quiet guilty consciences for another year so we can ignore the injustices in our society that keep people trapped in poverty, just to name a few.
I used to think my negativity about the Holidays was because my employment for most of my adult life required a lot of extra effort in November and December. I worked my way through college working for a florist and put in many long hours from before Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve preparing, selling, and delivering floral finery for festive occasions. And then I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire of being a pastor – writing sermons, planning worship services, caroling parties, collecting donations for those in need, visiting the homebound. Non-stop activity for the entire Advent season leaves little time or energy for doing all the “normal” things people do at home and with family and friends. The last church I served we had Christmas Eve services at 4, 7, 9, and 11, and by the time I crawled into bed early Christmas morning any Christmas spirit I had was pretty well spent. In fact, just writing that paragraph makes me want to go take a long winter’s nap!
There are of course many rewards to the Christian observances of Christmas, and I don’t mean to belittle those. Seeing the joy in a mother’s eyes when we made it possible for her family to have food and gifts for Christmas, sharing carols or communion with a nursing home patient, or singing “Silent Night” with my church family all holding lighted candles at midnight on Christmas Eve are priceless experiences.
2014 is my first year of full retirement from pastoral ministry, and what I’ve discovered is that it wasn’t my various holiday-intensive jobs that made me Grinchy. I still don’t like the way we do Christmas, and that realization helped me come to an Aha moment as I sat in worship on the 2nd Sunday of Advent this year. The sermon by Rev. Tom Slack was based on Mark 1 and stressed the urgency of John the Baptist’s call for repentance in preparation for the imminent appearance of the Christ. To repent means to turn around, to change the way I’m going, and when I applied that to my Ebeneezer Scrooge approach to Christmas I realized, as anyone else could have told me, that my attitude is a choice. I can continue to be a moaning and groaning critic of all the things that are wrong with the way we do Christmas, or I can do as Gandhi suggests and “Be the change I want to see in the world.”
The serenity prayer came to mind and as usual is very good advice. It asks God for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I can’t change the way other people choose to spend their time or money at Christmas, and if I could, complaining and criticizing is never the most effective way to persuade anyone to change. Secondly, that prayer asks for “the courage to change the things I can.” The only thing I really can change directly is me and my attitude, and that is far more likely to affect others either positively or negatively than any words ever will. As someone once said, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say,” or as St. Francis put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
How I relate to others one-on-one, be in a homeless stranger or family and friends, those I love most, or how I treat harried sales clerks and UPS drivers and restaurant servers who are just trying to scratch out a living is a powerful example of either Christ-like compassion or Grinchy grouchiness – and both are contagious. God not only loves a cheerful giver, God knows any other giving is not generosity at all.
Is turning an attitude around easy to do? Not for me. I need a guiding star or Rudolph with his red nose to guide me through the fog of clever marketing and the frustrations of crowded calendars and freeways and malls. Rudolph goes down in history for rescuing Christmas. That’s not my goal. I simply want to do my small part to share the Good News of God’s unconditional love for us by the way I choose to live in spite of and because of the holy busyness of this season.
Everyone in the Christmas story makes individual choices that are critical to the outcome. Some of those choices are blatantly selfish and evil. Caesar Augustus decrees that a poor peasant girl in the final days of her pregnancy must make a dangerous journey to Bethlehem and deliver her precious infant in a barn. Herod’s insecurity drives him to order the murder of innocent children. But those choices from people in power aren’t the choices we celebrate. An overwhelmed innkeeper provides the best shelter he has when there is no room in the inn. A frightened Mary says “yes” to God’s plan for her when she could have ignored or laughed at the audacity of that angelic announcement. And her amazing fiancé loves her enough to trust her unbelievable explanation of how she came to be pregnant. These are all simple individual choices that changed the course of human history.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste any time with genealogies and background stories. John the Baptist and a grown up Jesus both burst on the scene in chapter one demanding that we repent and believe the Gospel. They call me to follow Jesus no matter how busy or frustrated I am or what fantastic doorbuster bargains Walmart and Amazon are dangling in front of me. They remind me that my job is not to judge how others celebrate the birth of Christ. God or Santa can decide who’s naughty or nice. My job is to know what I can control (me) and be the best star-following disciple I can be.