Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas

The other night my kids watched one of the latest holiday children's specials that are on network tv this time of year.  They were watching Kung Fu Panda.  As they watched one things that stood out to me was the fact that the special never mentioned what holiday it was that they were celebrating.  They were celebrating "the holiday" and getting ready for "the winter feast".  There was never a word about what holiday or what feast they were going to celebrate.

It seems to be a pattern that the more recent the holiday special are the less there is any specific mention of Christmas.  Compare the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  There are no bones about what holiday is celebrated, they are celebrating Christmas.  They are looking for a Christmas tree.  They children perform in a Christmas program.  The Peanuts Gang even reads the Christmas narrative from Luke 2.  They are celebrating Christmas.  More than that they are celebrating a Christian Christmas.  The Peanuts Special still airs on TV, most likely for the sake of nostalgia. Today the specials seem to follow the trend illustrated by Po the Panda.

My Christians sensibilities are tempted to be offended by this, to see it as an affront to the Chritsian faith.  But as I reflected further it occurred to me that this is not entirely a bad thing.  

For the Christian this time of year is about Christ.  It is a celebration of God coming to his creation to redeem us and save us from sin and death and Satan.  This has everything to do with the Gospel of Jesus.  We celebrate because this is God taking action to accomplish our salvation.  To mark this celebration we decorate with evergreen trees that remind us of the ever lasting life that is ours because of Jesus.  We use lights and candles because they remind us of the Light of the World who has come to enlighten our hearts in faith.  We give gifts to remind us of the greatest Gift that God has given to us in the person of his Son.

It just so happens that there is another holiday that occurs this time of year.  It happens to coincide with the Christian celebration of Christmas and there are many similar customs and traditions. There is gift giving, tree decorating, lights, and color schemes, but in spite of their similarities they are not the same holiday.  They are different.  One is a celebration of God's salvation come in human flesh to save the world from sin.  One is a celebration of God's greatest gift to us, the other is a celebration of our gifts to each other.  Some of these gifts we give are in the abstract; things like Christmas spirit, or peace or joy or good will.  Some of these gifts are material; gifts like a diamond engagement ring, a new BMW, a Lego set, or a Kohl's gift card.  

Television is all about selling those gifts.  It is primarily a medium where product manufacturers sell their products.  NBC, CBS, ABC don't produce programming out of the goodness of their heart or because they really want to tell a story or because they have a message to proclaim.  For the broadcasting companies television isn't about the programming at all.  It is about the commercials.  The programming is only the incentive to get us to watch the commercials.  NBC and all the rest want want to be able to charge as much as possible for that air time so they need to make their programming as broadly appealing as possible.  There are lots of people who celebrate a holiday in December and who will be potential customers for the advertisers.  Some will celebrate Christmas, some will celebrate Hanukkah, some will celebrate Kwanza, some will just celebrate Santa Claus.  So Kung Fu Panda doesn't decorate for Christmas, he decorates for "the Holiday".  He doesn't have "Christmas Dinner, he has a "winter feast".  And I am okay with that.  Because at least he is being honest.  

 Even if he called his "winter feast" Christmas he wouldn't really be celebrating Christmas.  He wouldn't be celebrating God's gift of salvation through the birth of the Christ Child for the salvation of the world from sin, he would be celebrating a generic holiday that recognized our gifts of peace, good will and gift cards to each other.  Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Shrek Donkey and Fiona, and the Madagascar Penguins only want to sell those things.  To leave it at that and call it a holiday keeps things honest and leave the Christmas feast to the Christians.  When it gets down to it, I am okay with that.  Po can wish you a "Happy Holiday".  I will wish you a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 5, 2011

True Christmas Spirit

There is a kind of romance that comes alive every year with the approach of Christmas. It is an eagerness and an expectation that fills the world with excitement. The bright lights, the Christmas trees, the wrapped packages under the tree all add to the joy and the anticipation. We call it Christmas Spirit, and it is catching. It fills people and moves them to acts of generosity, to feelings of good will and peace toward men. It opens their hearts in joy. The realist in us, quickly acknowledges these as romantic notions, but there is something about it that you can't escape. Why else would the Salvation Army bell ringers stand out in the cold unless there was some timely spirit of generosity that invaded the season? 

But this Christmas Spirit doesn't last. December 26th comes, the parties are over the family gatherings are done. The ill-fitting gifts are returned and soon the world is like it was. The joy, the expectation, the generosity, they all fade with the season and come down with the decorations. 

But does it have to be that way? Is Christmas Spirit reserved only for the month of December? Can it be Christmas in January or July? Is it necessary for the Christmas joy to fade and the Christmas generosity to wane? Is it possible that peace and good will toward men could last throughout the year and not be things that we put on and then take off like a Christmas sweater? Yes! 

Christmas Spirit is a God given gift that is year round. Angel Choirs sing just as much on New Years Eve or even All Hallows Eve as they do on Christmas Eve. And for the Christian, the spirit of generosity and joy and good will toward men are year round fruits of the spirit that aren't just reserved for a holiday. 

We all remember the angels who visited the shepherds on the hillside with the message that they brought good news of great joy that would be for all people. But Luke, the same Gospel writer who tells us of shepherds and angels tells us of further joy. 

Those same angels who rejoiced at the birth of the Christ child burst into heavenly delight and song when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7) 

Jesus' disciples were filled with joy when they saw their Lord alive on the third day after he died on the cross. (Luke 24:41) After they saw him ascend into heaven they returned to Jerusalem where they were continually worshipping God with great joy. 

The Apostle Paul reminds us that joy is a fruit that is produced in the heart of a Christian when the seed of faith is watered by the Holy Spirit so that it grows up and produces a harvest. Christians can't help but rejoice because of what God has done for them in Christ! 

If joy is for the whole year, than how much more is good will. Usually when we consider "good will toward men" we make the assumption that this good will is a general feeling of favor that we feel toward each other. We think of it as just being kind, lending a helping hand, paying it forward. These are all fine, but they are meaningless with out God's good will toward us. 

The catechism reminds us of God's good will. "God's will is done every time he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God's name or let his kingdom come; and when he strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is the good and gracious will of God. 

Elsewhere, St Paul tells us that according to the purpose of God's good will we were predestined to be adopted through Jesus Christ as God's own children, his sons and heirs. (Ephesians 1:5) Jesus tells us that it is the Father's good pleasure to give to us his Kingdom. (Luke 12:32) And because God's will has been accomplished in us, that is to say because we have come to repentance and faith through the power of the Spirit we are able to will and to do what is good. (Philippians 2:13) 

And then there is that issue of generosity. Typically charities depend on the Christmas season for their coffers to be filled because it is a time when the Christmas Spirit motivates people to give. Yet Jesus tells us that when he returns on the last day to judge the living and the dead his Christians will be commended for how generous they were with Him, seeing him cold and naked and sick and suffering and caring for his bodily needs. 

Dr Martin Luther puts it like this: "This is an outstanding praise of hospitality in order that we may be sure that God himself is in our home, is being fed at our house, is lying down and resting as often as some pious brother in exile because of the Gospel comes to us and is received hospitably by us. This is called brotherly love or Christian charity; it is greater than that general kindness which is extended even to strangers and enemies when they are in need of our aid. Even the accounts of the friendships of the Gentiles, like those of Theseus and Hercules, of Pylades and Orestes, are nothing in comparison with the brotherhood in the church; its bond is an association with God so close that the Son of God says that whatever is done to the least of His is done to Himself. Therefore their hearts go out without hypocrisy to the needs of their neighbor, and nothing is either so costly or so difficult that a Christian does not undertake it for the sake of the brethren." (Quoted from Treasury of Daily Prayer)

The joy of Christmas is that God himself came down to earth from Heaven to save sinners and set them free so that they could live in eternal joy. The world can muster up joy for a season, put on a happy face for a month or so and give away a little Christmas cheer. But it doesn't last. It can't last. True joy comes from Jesus. True selfless love and generosity comes from the working of the Spirit so that we give to one another because we have been given to by God. True good will does not originate in us but comes from God who accomplished his will by sending his Son, born of a woman, laid in a manger, worshiped by shepherds and angels so that he could live and die under the law, so that you and I could believe and have life. True Christmas Spirit is Christian Spirit and that is yours year round.