Category Archives: Christmas

Mary, Mary More Than Quite Contrary

As I wade into Advent, the days of waiting, expectation and longing, I think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I have been reflecting on Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s announcement about the conception of her son (some of which comes from The Real Mary by Scot McKnight). There are two incredible things that Mary accepts in that account. She is given an incredible message that as a Hebrew woman certainly means shame and ridicule. Yet she says, “Let it be according to your word.” Then she turns to her cousin Elizabeth and launches into one of the greatest protest chants of the Bible, which is often called the Magnificat.

Visitation_handLGHere is what Mary accepts. Mary accepts that nothing has to change for her to be involved in God’s plan except for God to get in the mix. She didn’t have to earn a Masters in Social Work or Economics to analyze the problems in her society and come up with a solution. She didn’t work her way into the places of power in order to affect change. She remained a humble, common person brought even lower by God’s means of reaching out to us. Being part of God’s plan didn’t make her life better. It made it worse. She also didn’t need to be special. She only needed to be faithful and that is what the phrase “Let it be according to your word” shows, her faithfulness and trust in something so outrageous and difficult, yet true and good.

the-real-mary-why-evangelical-christians-can-embrace-the-mother-of-jesus-1So, Mary accepts her own reality. She takes life and the world as it is and doesn’t expect it to magically change. She will suffer because of God’s plan. Yet she is also able to proclaim something totally unbelievable. She proclaims the Great Reversal in which God turns the world upside down and reverses the unjust ordering of the world. She didn’t pull this out of thin air. She would have heard the words of the prophets proclaiming just this. The incredible thing is that she accepts that this is the way things will be and that this is what God is doing in the world. It’s not abstract and it’s not future tense. This is what is happening.

How hard it is to accept both things, that my life is ordinary and that suffering and pain are part of life and that will not change no  matter how much I pray or love God, AND that God involves me in God’s work of redemption and reconciliation in this world just as I am (without one plea). Perhaps it is my privilege that makes this so difficult, but that is a post in itself.

As I yearn and long for God to make things right, for life to have balance, meaning, purpose and fullness, may I also recognize that God is already here. Nothing has to change for God to show up, and just because nothing changes doesn’t mean God is absent. We proclaim a reality and truth that has already arrived and changed everything, yet life continues and remains ordinary and mundane. May we follow Mary’s example and proclaim “Let it be according to your word” somehow living between these two realities.

image from http://www.bcartfarm.com/visitation.html

Holy Purchases: What to Do For the Holidays?

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I thought I was done with this series, but then the looming High Holy Days of Consumerism made me realize that this is the time of year that people wrestle the most with the conflict between the faith of consumerism and their faith as Christians. So, I want to try and write something helpful rather than just something to make you feel bad. I tried to paint a brief picture of the alternative economy of God in which all members of the household have their needs met, there is meaningful work for all and creation is sustainably cared for. It’s a nice picture, but far from the reality we live in.

There are lots of things we could do, but I’d like to focus on some ideas that pertain in particular to the Christmas season. I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. There’s a part of me that loves the cultural Christmas. I have a ridiculously large Christmas music collection. I love winter and snuggling up with some eggnog and a fire. I love Christmas movies. I love the magical feeling that our cultural Christmas myths stir. I love that there’s a general feeling of trying to get along and be nice to each other, to overcome our differences.

BUT with all of that also comes the guilt about what presents to buy. The list of people to buy something for. The sense of obligation rather than joy in giving. The mad rush to get more stuff and the feeling that having more will make you happy. The expectation of receiving presents and the disappointment of not getting what you wanted. These are also the values that the season brings with its cultural myths not in spite of them. So, what do we do with this time? How do we embody God’s economy in the midst of these powerful myths surrounding the High Holy Days of Consumerism? Here are some of my ideas. Continue reading

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

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The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

A Very Merry Pagan Christmas

hssanta.gifThis Sunday we explored the theme of celebration. We asked the question, “Who is celebrating Christmas?” As people shared their stories, the answer was surprising…

As people began to see the centrality and meaning of the incarnation for Christmas, their family’s overblown celebration of consumerism, tacky decorations and Santa Claus seemed superficial and even oppressive. But as they went deeper, they realized that even their secular family experienced grace and mercy during Christmas. Things that seem cheesy and idealistic any other time of year, like peace, love, mercy and grace, suddenly seem possible at Christmas time.

Many pundits and Christians turn the holidays into a competition between the secular, consumer holiday and the religious celebration of the incarnation. We hear slogans like “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” So much energy is expended trying to take back Christmas, as if it’s a holiday that we somehow possess as Christians.

What if God is at work in the midst of the most secular and consumerist versions of Christmas?

Just watch some of those classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street that has nothing to do with Jesus. Listen for God in the midst of those stories and you will be surprised. They are stories of faith, belief, love, mercy and kindness. There is often the theme of moving beyond our rationality to embrace the mystery of believing in things that we can’t see or that don’t make sense.

It’s true that the holidays are a rough time for a lot of people. This time of year brings up a lot of family and relational issues that we suppress the rest of the year. If we have eyes to see, I think it also makes space for redemption, reconciliation and grace. Are we open to God at work, even if Jesus is never mentioned or acknowledged as the “reason”?

The Green Bible

I got my very own copy of The Green Bible for Christmas (Thank you Kim!). It’s going to be an invaluable resource for this blog, particularly blogging through the Bible and thinking about how Christians have related to food/creation throughout history. An entire article is nothing but quotes about creation through Christian history. I’m very excited about using this Bible for my own devotional life as well as studying the Bible.

It features essays from the likes of N.T. Wright, Brian Mclaren, Pope John Paul II, Barbara Brown Taylor, a foreword by Desmond Tutu and it starts off with a poem from Wendell Berry (after a word from St. Francis of course). Words in the text that relate to creation are printed in green to highlight them. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this edition of the bestselling book in history and it looks like it delivers on its promises.