My patient’s mother has the pre-school channel Nick Jr. on most of the day. She says I can change the channel if I like, but most daytime TV is appalling so I and my charge have become acquainted with the channel’s entire schedule which is repeated several times a day! Some shows I like; some I don’t, like “Yo Gabba Gabba,” which, with its one-eyed red cactus creature and cat-lizard, dancing and singing songs made up of one line over and over ad nauseum, strikes me as a kid’s version of a bad acid trip. My patient loves it. There is no accounting for the taste of an 8-month old. So it was with some relief that I found my patient’s mother had set her DVR to record every Christmas special being shown this year. Some were familiar to me, like the stop motion version of Rudolph. Some were weird, like “Jack Frost” where a dead Michael Keaton comes back to see his family in the form of a creepy-looking snowman. And some were romances, like the many where Santa needed a wife, something I suspect did not trouble the actual st. Nicholas, a 3rd century bishop. In most of these specials, there’s a threat to the continued existence of Christmas, as if the holiday depended on Santa and not Jesus. Oh, and along the way, someone, in one case an amnesiac Santa, must learn the true meaning of Christmas or recapture its spirit.
But this meaning or spirit, so central to the plot of these specials, is rarely ever described. Which is odd. It would be like a James Bond or Indiana Jones film in which everyone was seeking a gadget or a formula or a relic without anyone ever saying what its importance or power was. So what difference would it make if a person doesn’t find this nebulous spirit?
Of course, the problem is that Christmas means different things to different people. To a lot of people its meaning is similar to that espoused by the dog Grimm in Mike Peter’s comic strip, “Mother Goose and Grimm.” In Thursday’s strip, another dog asks a present-laden Grimm where he’s been. “Out amassing a huge amount of gifts this season,” Grimm says.
“What do you mean by amass?” his friend asks.
“You know, buy, horde, accumulate,” Grimm answers.
“Is that what this season is about?” The other dog asks.
“Sure,” replies Grimm. “ I’m just keeping the ’amass’ in Christmas.”
But the Christmas specials don’t want to say it’s all about getting every material thing you desire, even if their protagonist is Santa Claus. So, if pressed, they say it is about family. Or love. Or giving. Or peace. Or joy. Or hope. All of which are acceptable to all, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof.
In a way, they are right. It is about family, love, giving, joy, hope, and peace. But to leave those as generic terms tells us nothing. What kind of family, for instance? The Borgias? The Manson family? Or those impossibly perfect families of old TV shows, like the Bradys, families we could never live up to? Not every family is a good exemplar of the Christmas spirit.
What kind of love? Romantic love? The “Santa seeks a spouse” movies think so. Or the obsessive love of stalkers? There are different kinds of love and not all are worthy of emulation.
What kind of giving? Leaving pennies at the register for the next person without enough change? Putting quarters in the Salvation Army kettle? These are all forms of giving but they cost us little, though we may feel virtuous because of them. Is this the kind of giving that Christmas embodies?
When you think about it, it’s hard to describe the spirit of something. Oddly enough, to be recognized, that spirit needs to be expressed in some tangible form, in characteristic words, actions or personalities. And so to know what its true spirit is, we need to look at the form it took on that first Christmas.
The first family to come together at Christmas wasn’t celebrating anything. Joseph is taking his very pregnant fiancé on a 3 day trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Some have disputed the idea that the Romans would require people to travel simply to be taxed. But if Joseph had property in Bethlehem, and if he couldn’t pay his taxes, Rome would require him to go back to the family farm and work it in order to make money to pay the taxes on it. So this wasn’t a family vacation. Joseph was pulled out of the town where he made a new start to return to an abandoned, probably unprofitable piece of property in his birthplace. And he had to work it to pay taxes to the foreign powers occupying his country. On top of that, Mary could deliver any day. Joseph was probably in a very black mood and Mary an extremely anxious one the whole trip. So maybe it was like some family vacations.
Why did they go? They knew the penalty for disobeying Rome. During the later census in 6 AD, many in Galilee rebelled. Of course, it was put down violently and the road to the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris, was lined with the crosses of rebels. Since Nazareth was just 4 miles away, Jesus might have seen and certainly would have remembered that. He knew the penalty of opposing the status quo. But at this point, that was in the future. Joseph knew he must go. But why drag Mary along? Possibly because of how long it might take him to revive the farm and his not wanting to be separated from her. Also he may have wanted to be there when she gave birth to her first child. And maybe because, with gossip about her pregnancy, Mary had few friends in Nazareth who would be seen with her, much less help with the birth. Questions had been buzzing around the betrothed couple in Nazareth: did they jump the gun while engaged or was she unfaithful? Joseph could have cut and run, leaving his scandalous fiancé behind. But he didn’t. So rather than a family sitting back and relaxing over a feast, the form the spirit of family takes the first Christmas, is one that, despite taxes, poverty, and vicious rumors, despite stresses without and within, decides to stick together and share each other’s burdens, trusting God for a better future.
What about the form that love takes at Christmas? We could reiterate what we said about family but there is more to it than that. Human love is common and rarely untainted by selfish motives. There are enough stories of human love. We don’t need any more. But concrete examples of divine love? That we could use.
There are religions that are primarily about justice. Others are primarily about peace. Some are primarily about personal righteousness. Christianity encompasses all of those but its uniqueness is that it is primarily about love, God’s love for us. And the form God’s love takes is Jesus Christ. God is our creator. He is the author of our existence. But if that is the only way we know him, he is an abstraction. We are like the little boy who got frightened by thunderstorms. His mother, trying to comfort him, reminded him one stormy night that God loved him and was always with him. After a series of loud booms, he ran to his mother’s bed. “You’re a big boy. You don’t have to come in here,” his mother said. “I told you God loves you and is always with you.”
“I know, “ said the boy, snuggling. “but I like love with skin on.”
Jesus is God’s love with skin on. He is, as J.B. Philips put it, the infinite, abstract God focused in terms we understand--in terms of time and space and human personality. If you wish to see what God is like, look at Jesus. He wants the best for us and so demands the best from us. But he knows we are frail and so he fortifies us. He knows we often fail and so he forgives us. He knows we fated to die and so he offers us eternal life. And all we have to do is trust him. And we can do that because we know he loves us. And so the form the spirit of love takes the first Christmas is Jesus.
What about the form that giving takes at Christmas? The world thinks that it means buying lots of gifts for everyone you know. But originally it was Jesus’ giving of his life. It wasn’t sufficient that he was given life; it was essential that he gave up that life. We have beautiful babies aplenty. We have libraries full of the words of wise men. But Jesus gave his life to save ours and it is that death that makes his birth significant. What happened in a stable in Bethlehem matters little apart from what happened on a hill outside Jerusalem. The babe in the straw is unimportant unless he is also the man on the tree. The crèche is meaningless without the cross. Christmas draws its importance from Good Friday. And Good Friday would be nothing more than a miscarriage of justice without Easter. Jesus gives his life for us and in return God gives it back again. And were it not for the bodiless tomb, we would never have heard of the baby-filled manger. So the form that giving takes the first Christmas is that of a life of self-sacrifice, the life of Jesus, who was born to die and then to live forever.
As for the forms peace or joy or hope take, we will take those up in my next post. But let me emphasize that the spiritual and the physical are meant to go together. The physical gives form to the spirit. The spirit give meaning to the physical.
Just physically bringing together a bunch of people related by blood or marriage doesn’t necessarily constitute a family. The spirit of caring, supporting and forgiving one another must be present. I’m sure on that trip there were times when put-upon Joseph wondered if God was the father of Mary’s child, what was he needed for? And I’m sure there were times when Mary thought Joseph was leading that donkey into every pothole between Galilee and Judea. They were under tremendous strain but they stuck it out and they stuck together.
People coming together physically doesn’t necessarily constitute love. People saying they love others doesn’t necessarily constitute love, either. The spirit of love, of nurture and helping, must be present and must be manifested in tangible ways. Jesus didn’t just talk of loving others, he demonstrated it. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick and the handicapped. He touched the untouchables in his society. He ate and drank with and taught the outcasts. He forgave sinners. He encouraged the generous and the faithful. So when, on the night he was betrayed, he told his disciples to love one another as he loved them, they knew exactly what that looked like and felt like.
Just passing some physical object on to another person doesn’t necessarily constitute giving, especially if you are doing it out of obligation or in expectation of getting something back. The spirit of giving, of generosity and even self-sacrifice, must be present. Jesus gave to those who could not repay him. He gave of his time. He gave of his talent. He gave his life, both in service to others and in sacrifice for others. We owe him a debt our feeble efforts to give can never pay off. So we pay it forward, knowing that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him.
Our other holidays have all degenerated into excuses for self-indulgence. We take time off, stuff ourselves, and treat ourselves to gifts or entertainment. We no longer honor the presidents on Presidents Day, or thank those who labor on Labor Day, or think about Martin Luther King on his day. We have made their days all about ourselves. Let’s not make Christmas another example of that. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Jesus, God’s giving, self-sacrificial love made real. He is more than an idea, more solid than just a notion of being nice for one day or one season, more specific than the slogans and buzzwords that make us feel good about ourselves. Christmas is about Christ Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. His is the spirit we must manifest in our lives. Or else it really is all humbug.