the gifts of the anti-magi

This post has been a long time coming.  This time of the year is always difficult for me, as I feel torn between holiday cheer and resentful drear, obligation and celebration, hope and despair.

I am so very sick of the war on Christmas.

“Oh, good,” some of my Christian friends may be saying at this point, “me too!  Why can’t people just put Christ back into Christmas?”

No, dear friends and readers, that’s not what I mean.  I’m sick of the phrase “put the Christ back in Christmas” and all of the entitlement it entails.  I wish it would all just stop.  Now, I understand that may not sound terribly Christian of me, but hold on.  You may say that your anger and demands are for the sake of Christ, and I wouldn’t want to disparage your motives.  I’m not in your head and I don’t know what you’re thinking.  Yet there’s a painful sticking point in that concession, and it’s one that bears hearing out.  Saying “put the Christ back in Christmas” pretends, even for the space of that second, that Christ is something that can be moved and removed by man.  It implies that Christ’s presence in the holidays for us, as individuals, is somehow dictated by the actions of society.  I don’t like to believe that my experience of Christ this time of year is somehow beholden to the displays in Macy’s windows.  After all, the force of love I am enthralled by is greater than any one man, any one store, any one society.  How weak would I have to be if my sacred observances were somehow shattered by a greeting card?

“Now, it’s bigger than that”, someone inevitably says.  “The fact that people are no longer observing Christmas as a Christian holiday shows how secular society has become, and this is supposed to be a Christian society.”

Hold. On.  Please.

For one thing, the Christmas smashed all over billboards is hardly Christian.  The Christmas touted in the commercials telling our adorable little tots that this monster truck or that Barbie doll will somehow complete them are anything BUT Christian.  The promise of the holiday that society has started to hold on to is almost in direct contradiction to the Gospel.  The “spirit of Christmas”, as it is sold, is that the holiday itself has some ability to heal.  We’re told, in less than guarded symbolism, that if we buy the right things, eat the right food, invite the right guests, and have the right attitude that we will somehow achieve a transcendent state.  The holiday has become a spiritual act of reaching for sacred healing, but that sacred healing is not tied to God, Christ, or the ideals of Christianity.  It is a secular sacredness, and as such treating the holiday as holy is tantamount to idol worship.

After all, it is jolly ol’ Santa Claus receiving the sacramental cookies and milk, not God.

Christmas, the holy mass of Christ, was once not even Christmas at all.  You’ve got the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia blended in with Christianity, as the Roman empire expanded and brought in new territories and started to expand the practice of tolerance towards other religions.  In order to lower the amount of infighting between sects and oppression as people traveled from district to district, the Roman calendar morphed to overlap the holidays so that people’s observances were not as conspicuous.  It is ironic, then, that a holiday once tweaked to help avoid oppression and foster inclusiveness has become such a battleground.

Honestly, I don’t think Christmas is the real problem.  I think that Christianity has become the real problem.  In the United States, Christians have a huge entitlement complex that has become an idol above God.  We say that this is a Christian society and anyone that acts against that is out of line, ignoring the fact that we are all equal citizens under the law and Christians are not owed privilege or protection to any greater degree than their neighbors.  We act affronted when anything we deem as untoward is allowed to continue, no matter how innocuous it is.  We bicker and argue and fight constantly, sending our representatives to the evening news and gleefully hacking to bits anyone who dares to disagree with them.

Here, in this season of the Magi, when we celebrate the sacred gifts laid at the feet of Christ, I feel that Christians in America have started praising three other gifts, the gifts of the anti-Magi, laid at the feet of our own ego.  We have swallowed these gifts whole and they threaten to destroy us.  They are entitlement, disdain, and division.  Gifts like that are born of evil and exercised at great personal cost.  But open your eyes, brothers and sisters, and see how we worship them!  Hear the entitlement in the voice of the person telling the Jewish shop owner to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas” when they hand up a Happy Holidays banner.  Hear the disdain in the voice of the mother who, when hearing that a classmate of her child’s wouldn’t come to the Winter Program because they don’t celebrate holidays, says, “Well, isn’t that just what’s wrong with this country?” Look at the division when someone goes on Facebook to beg for tolerance and they are told that they are why Christianity is failing in this country.

I have so many friends who say they can’t stand to go to church, that every time they hear someone is a Christian they instantly feel uncomfortable around them, that they believe in Christ but not the church.

I feel like my soul is just shredded, absolutely shredded, by the holiday season.

la pieta

Christianity is not owed anything by society.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Because you are Christian, everyone ought to respect you, respect everything you say, and never cause negative consequences for any of your actions.”  In fact, it says quite the opposite.  It tells us not to be surprised when we’re hated and persecuted.  So why are we so surprised?  Because we have idolized our own society.  We idolize the constitution, idolize free speech, idolize the symbolism of our holidays.  We worship those things as sacred and then react like vipers when they are threatened.  Because we blindly believe they should be perfect, we accept nothing less: even when, or perhaps especially when, the evidence all around us says otherwise.

We bear a tragic consequence for that behavior, but society bears one even worse as people turn from love to disdain and hatred.

So in this time of year, as we dream of the Magi traveling by the light of a sacred star, carrying gifts of adoration and penance to a pure and holy infant king, let’s think about the gifts that we ourselves need to offer.  Not the perfect consumerist presents wrapped in expensive wrapping paper and laid down at the altar of a tree whose symbolism we’ve forgotten, but the gifts we offer each other.

Let’s stop being the anti-Magi.

Photo from Daniela Munoz-Santos

Don’t worry about tomorrow

As I’ve written about on this blog before (to the consternation of some fellow Christians who fear for my salvation, I’m afraid) I’m not sure I believe in Hell.  When reading through the Bible I see a lot of allusions to torment, but the only concrete references to a place of eternal darkness are in reference to angels that have disobeyed, not humans.

But I don’t want to get into another discussion about that.  Trust me, I’ve studied the theology, I’m not sure what I believe.  What I want to talk about right now is how that fact has absolutely no affect on my own desire to obey God and to convince others of God’s goodness.  This is how it works:  Jesus himself said not to concern yourself with tomorrow.  I feel the same thing extends to the afterlife as well.  I trust in God’s love for me, I trust in my love for him, eternity holds no fear for me.  And as for others, My fear for their salvation is based not around eternal torment but in their satisfaction with this life.

I am sure of the fact that the greatest joy and satisfaction, the deepest pleasure and the most profound peace is found in sensing God’s love for you.  Daily I am surrounded by people who are facing difficult financial times and life crisis of all kinds.  They talk about the lack of security they feel.  They talk about the fear, the mundaneness of each day fading into the next with no hope of relief.  These people don’t need to be spared the hell of eternity- they need to be spared the hell of today.  They need to feel God’s love, the love of the Christian brethren.  They need to feel the hope that comes from learning to trust God, learning to put their lives in his hands, learning obedience, learning to grow and mature and see their own lives uplift those of others.

I think that Christianity has as a whole sold itself painfully short by making the Salvation message one solely about eternity and a canned sinner’s prayer.  Salvation is not only about tomorrow- it’s about today.  It’s about saving ourselves from our present circumstances and saving those around us.  The Jews of Jesus time weren’t expecting a Messiah to get them into heaven, they were expecting a Messiah to deliver the Israelites out of political oppression.  Jesus just had something else in mind- delivering them from the oppression of a religious caste that had turned it’s back on God’s love for his people.

Sometimes I fear that modern Christianity has done much the same.  We’ve surrounded ourselves with twelve steps to discipleship and forty days to community and seven rules of prophetic prayer and ten ways to worship God and this and that and the other thing, and somehow in the midst of all of these “simple solutions” for the modern Christian we’ve lost sight of what Christianity was meant to be.

Us, loving each other.  Us, delivering each other from oppression.  Us, feeling the love of our eternal Father.

Now, today.

Not just for eternity, but for now and always.

Love, Etc.

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I generally prefer 1st John 4, but I’ve posted that passage on this blog several times.  So I will take the Corinthians one today.  And I will say something, which may seem odd or may seem wonderful:

read the last sentence again.  Without love, faith and hope are nothing.  Think about it.  Think about it in terms of God.  In terms like, “without love for God, faith in God and hope in religion mean nothing.”  Think about it in terms of, “without love for my church, all of my biblical learning won’t help me be a better pastor.”

Think about it in terms of how absolute it is.  Without love, nothing.  That’s so absolute.  We need love, and we forget that fact often.  We need love, which means we need each other.  We need people who need us to love them, because we need to love them as much as they need to recieve said love from us.

Today, love someone.  Love them stupidly and extravagantly, with no hope of recieving anything in return.  You just might change their world.

Dreams, those odd birds of the night

Dreams.  A lot of the talk between my friends these past few weeks has focused on our dreams.  What is it that makes us wish and hope?  What do we want faith for?  In an ideal world, what callings of our hearts would we pursue?

So much about life has to do with getting by.  Managing.  Doing whatever is necessary to make it from one day to the next with warm enough clothes, food in our bellies, and hopefully spare change in the bottom of our pockets.  We center our lives around not what is best or what is most desperately wanted but simply what is necessary to get by.

Likewise my friends and I find that our spiritual lives have ended up much the same way.  We seek out not what we are praying for, but simply what is necessary to keep the fires burning and the hearth safe.  We don’t pursue our own ministries, but instead fill the holes that need filling to keep the machine running.  Secretly we wonder what would happen if everyone pulled out and pursued their own visions.

Collapse.

We know it, we just don’t say it.  And somewhere in the backs of our minds lays the question, “do we really need each other so badly that self has to be sacrificed every time?”  A question not to be said out loud, because Christ sacrificed his self and we feel obligated.  Not just obligated, called.  Called to each other.

And in that reality is the death of many dreams.  Dreams who have languished for so long that we are no longer familiar with each other.  Someone asks, “what is your dream?” and we fumble for the words.  We sigh and smile at not our dream itself but the thought of a dream, the thought of having something to wish for, the thought that maybe there are still fairy godmothers who will rescue us in the eleventh hour.

A wise man says, “start putting aside seed for your dreams now, so they can be harvested in your lifetime.”

I have no seed, just words.

So I set aside words.  Words not for the dream, but for the hope of the dream.  Words so that perhaps one day I will be brave enough to dream again.

The good Book says, “the Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

Ah, I am a woman.  Perhaps that is my problem.