“Thanksgiving is over, and now Christmas has come . . .”
Those were some of the words from an offertory prayer I heard on a broadcast of a church service the other night. It was a tape-delayed broadcast from a local church, and it was their service from this past Sunday (26 Nov.). The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas, they sang Christmas songs, and the sermon was a Christmas sermon. The preacher kept saying, “As we celebrate Christmas . . .”
Did I miss something? Christmas has come? As we celebrate Christmas?
For those of you who think that church calendar stuff is esoteric and not practical, look no further than the church service I observed. This is nothing more than the church following the world, rather than the other way around. Christmas is a Christian holiday. Retailers invented the “shopping season” that begins the day after Thanksgiving, not the church. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, no one could (or should) have said “Christmas has now come.” The season of preparation for Christmas (Advent) had not even begun by last Sunday. Last Sunday was Christ the King (or the Reign of Christ) Sunday, a pretty important doctrine on its own, I think. This coming Sunday is the beginning of Advent, but even so, we can’t (or shouldn’t) say “Christmas has now come” until Christmas Eve.
As those who are “redeeming the time”, we should mark time differently from the world. Our priorities should be different from those of the retailers. Christian tradition regarding not only Christmas, but all holy days, follows this pattern: prepare–celebrate–reflect. During Advent, we prepare ourselves spiritually (and otherwise) to celebrate Christ’s birth. During the Twelve Days of Christmas (which begin, rather than end, on 25 December), we celebrate. On Epiphany and the days afterward, we reflect on the relevance of Christmas in our lives. Similarly, during Lent and Holy Week we prepare. During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we celebrate. On Pentecost and the Sundays afterward we reflect on what it means to have the Risen Christ in our midst (through the Holy Spirit). Celebration without preparation is superficial. Maybe that’s why Evangelicals rarely get any deeper than “keep Christ in Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season” at this time of year. Actually, Jesus is not the reason for the season most Evangelicals think is the “Christmas season”: money is the reason for the “shopping season.”
Understanding the Church Year is important because the way we mark time can bring us spiritual health. “Practical” theology is theology that is put into practice. We need to get past this idea that only things with titles like “10 Easy Steps to Spiritual Growth” are “practical.” Understanding how we should mark time as God’s people is intensely practical: it is one of the most practical subjects of all, because we live in time. Applying our faith to the way we mark time is where we put feet to our faith: the way we mark time as the church sets us apart as a counter-culture, in the world but not of the world. Salt and light. City on a hill. Etc., etc.
Throwing up our hands and calling the “shopping season” Christmas is ridiculous. Just as the culture itself is beginning to say “enough!” to the retailers’ attempts to push Christmas back earlier and earlier every year (several articles to that end have appeared in major publications in the past few months), Evangelicals are once again proving that no one is more “of the world, but not in it” than they are. Ridiculous. And sad.
If the church would refuse to recognize the “shopping season” and purposefully mark time the way Christians have marked time for centuries (preparation–celebration–reflection), we wouldn’t have to run around yelling “keep Christ in Christmas.” Christ has always been in Christmas: the real Christmas. Who cares whether or not the retailers keep Christ in their “shopping season”? They can have their shopping season. The church has Christmas: it always has and it always will. We simply need to tell the world how Christmas is to be celebrated, not allow them to dictate its celebration to us.
After all, it was ours to begin with, not theirs.