Many Christians, especially those from a tradition like mine that observes Advent scrupulously, not decorating the church or singing carols until Christmas Eve, find themselves playing two games at once during this season. On the one hand there is the usual frantic shopping, wreath hanging, tree trimming, partygoing and overeating. On the other hand there is the deepening mood of Advent, which calls us to a mature, clear-sighted and steadfast faith. A similar split in our sensibility is apparent in Christian bookstores and church gift shops where an austere Byzantine icon will be displayed next to an angel that looks like a Barbie doll. Christmas cards with medieval illustrations sit cheek-by-jowl with designs of Santas playing golf:
It seems to me that this aesthetic confusion contributes to theological immaturity. Grown-up people seem to become addled at this season as they try to recapture their lost childhoods. One of our leading mail-order companies put this verse on its Christmas shipping boxes a couple of years ago:
“May you find among the gifts / Spread beneath your tree / The most welcome gift of all / The child you used to be.” A typical greeting card says, “Backward, turn backward, 0 Time, in your flight / Make me a child again, just for tonight!”
Harmless, you say. But in a culture like ours, where parents have very little time to spend with their children, and where an obsessive pursuit of youth has caused an 800 percent increase in cosmetic surgical procedures in ten years, a focus on becoming childlike at Christmas seems guaranteed to skew the message of the incarnation.
One of the most dramatic changes in my own denomination is the shift away from the adult midnight service on Christmas Eve to a wildly popular “family” service at an earlier hour, which by its very nature cannot offer much in the way of a sermon or more challenging music. I do not want to be misunderstood here; Christmas ritual can indeed be beneficial for the developing faith of children. However, if the children get the idea that Christmas is entirely for them, that there are no privileges reserved for their maturity it does not seem likely that their faith will unfold in the direction of Good Friday.
Read it all.