Comfort and Joy

The song, “We Need a Little Christmas,” is about clinging to a happy Christmas attitude “before [one’s] spirit falls again,” and its tone is generally one of forced merriment.  There’s one section that’s particularly stark though:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.”

The rest of the lyrics talk about setting up decorations, singing songs, and going through the proper motions in hopes of engendering holiday joy.  I suspect, for those of us who want to be happy around the holidays at all–a lot of us don’t bother anymore–this experience is recognizable.

When we were kids, Christmas was magical.  Where I’m from at least, it included three things, each of which independently is sufficient to inspire happiness in children, but it included the three in combination:  sweets, presents, and time off school.  The whole business was saturated with endorphins, sugar and play; what was not to like?

As an adult the story changes a bit.  We’re the ones who have to do all the shopping, wrapping, baking, preparing, cleaning, decorating, and traveling.  Most of us don’t even get much time off work, so we do those things while also doing our jobs too.  As adults Christmas is saturated with stress, logistics, and exhaustion.  In fact, if I had the time to play, I’d probably take a nap instead.

It gets worse too.  As a kid Christmas was all-encompassing.  My life had been short enough and sheltered enough that a marvelous, magical, midwinter feast could capture my entire attention.  (It didn’t hurt that I had very little attention to capture, I suppose.)  I didn’t worry about the future, whatever strange thing might happen after Christmas was over.  I didn’t know about the present, whatever hardships and dangers affected even my own family.  I didn’t care about the past; whatever struggles and embarrassments that I had faced, they vanished in a haze of expectation.

As an adult Christmas seems smaller.  It’s easy to lose it amidst all those things I didn’t notice when I was younger.  The future is looming and full of uncertainties.  The trials and terrors of the present don’t pause for holidays.  The past has blossomed into fodder that my brain uses to lower any expectations I might have.  And my life is pretty good.  I look around me and see people who are homeless, starving, threatened, lost, confused, hopeless…..  I could go on.

We do in fact “need a little Christmas now,” but not what the song suggests.

In my culture there’s a pervasive sort of myth about “having Christmas spirit,” although people tend to be vague about what they mean when they say it.  In large part this is because it seems like the sort of thing that vanishes if you try to pin it down.  It involves being happy and generous though, being patient with strangers and affectionate with family and friends.  Most importantly, a la Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if you try hard enough to do the right things, it can transform your entire life into something joyful.

That’s where the trouble starts.  We know that Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and peace, but the harder we work at it, the less joyful and peaceful it seems.  Then we escalate: we put up a bigger display of Christmas lights, buy bigger presents (and go further into debt), go to more parties.  We sing louder, laugh heartier, and tell ourselves that one of these years it might work.  One of these years, the thousand crazy pieces of our lives will align, we’ll have everything in the right place at the right time, and we’ll be happy again because everything will be perfect.

God help us.

Well, actually he did.  That’s the point.

There’s another song from Christmas, one that’s very different from the anthem of forced merriment which I mentioned above:  “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.”  It’s almost confusing in its mellowness; it doesn’t sound like the sort of song I would sing if I were trying to force myself to be happy.  Its lyrics don’t even sound happy, at first blush.

(Actually, for most of us they sound like gibberish.  What does “God Rest You Merry” mean?  In fact I suspect a lot of people hear it as “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen.”  It isn’t a song about happy people getting restful naps, though.  In modern English “God rest you merry” might be translated “God secure you in happiness,” although that would butcher the meter of the song and sound less poetic.)

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
…From Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

It’s a strange holiday song indeed that, in a verse enjoining joy, mentions both the power of Satan and our own complicity with him.  In fact, encouraging us not to be dismayed by our circumstances just reminds us that our circumstances are frequently of the sort to which dismay seems like an appropriate response.  None of this seems like “tidings of comfort and joy;” none of this makes me want to sing “fa la la la la” while decorating anything.

I’ve left out something important, of course.

God rest you merry, Gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day
to save us all from Satan’s power
when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!

This is what it means to keep Christ in Christmas.  It isn’t a complaint about people abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas;” Christians have been abbreviating things since the beginning and doing it stylishly too.  It isn’t a complaint about people wishing us “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas;” since people who believe in Christmas understand that it is in fact a happy holiday.

It’s a reminder that Christmas is happy because of Christ.  Christmas spirit without Christ is just self-delusion, and unhappy ineffective self-delusion at that.

Christians are joyful at Christmas–we give generously, practice patience, embrace our families, and decorate everything–because Christ came to save us, both from our enemy, Satan, and from the deaths that our own choices had merited.  Christ came to give our futures back to us.  He came to show us that any bad things about the present were fleeting, but every good thing was eternal in him.  He came to redeem the world’s history, so that whatever evil we could remember was joined by something unequivocally good.

Christmas is when we start remembering that good.  Whatever else happens, we remember that Christ was born to save us, and no power of hell nor evil of earth can stand against him.  O tidings of comfort and joy!

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Adore Him

There’s a point in the movie, The Avengers, when Loki, ostensibly the villain of the piece, intimidates a crowd into frightened silence, orders everyone to kneel before him, and then says:

“Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end you will always kneel.”

Those of us who have grown up in a culture saturated by messages of independence and individuality, we have a visceral objection.  We’re conditioned to despise tyranny, and to be rather extravagant when dispensing that label.  Freedom is sacrosanct; “ego volo” is more convincing than “deus vult” ever was.

The movie intentionally evokes that very response.  We’re supposed to abhor what Loki is saying, and then to thrill as the movie slows down to focus on the elderly man who resists Loki and refuses to kneel.  It’s like the scene at the end of Dead Poets Society, albeit with more costumed heroes and less grandiosity: we’re supposed to side with the rebel, because the rebel values freedom.  Then over time, as we’re exposed to similar exhortations repeatedly, we become more like that rebel ourselves.  We also learn to triumph over tyrants.

Unfortunately, then we get to Christmas and discover that we’re unfit for it.  We sing songs like “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” but we don’t actually know how to adore anyone.  Sure we talk about adoring people and we say that some people are adorable, but we don’t mean it in the same way.  We don’t venerate and worship them; at best we’re describing a strong affection we have toward them.  Too often we mean something more obsessive and dehumanizing; we adore people the way we might adore chocolate cake: we want to consume them for our own pleasure.

As a way of explaining what I mean, consider monarchy.  Those of us without one, and those of us who have one but don’t value it, don’t have practice appreciating people for being what we can’t be ourselves.  We don’t have practice celebrating what we can’t ourselves attain.  We can only comfortably praise someone if we can want to be in their place and expect that someday we might; otherwise we mostly get jealous and decry the injustice of it.

When Britain’s Prince William married Catherine Middleton, their wedding was televised around the world, but where I live, the most frequent topic was the future Duchess’ status as a commoner.  It was a Cinderella story, something with which we could connect.  A lot of people enjoyed it because it symbolized the hope (however remote) that anyone could become royalty someday.

Had Prince William instead married a Princess from some other hereditary monarchy, I suspect the story would have been received differently.  People would likely have called the celebration showy, unnecessary, and in poor taste.  They likely would have objected that our society is too advanced to believe in archaic concepts like nobility, that the existence of royalty was contrary to justice, that the Prince and his bride ought to have been ashamed of themselves.  Some pundit somewhere would have expounded on the virtue of other systems, the ones in which there was at least the illusion that anyone can become powerful and important.

We don’t like the idea of being ruled, especially if there’s any suggestion that the person ruling is better than us in some way.  We only accept it (to the extent that we do accept it) if we feel that we might at least be a part of it, at least through some sort of representation.  We may never actually try to be a part of it, but the possibility makes the existence of authority less objectionable.

This is one of the reasons people get so angry about politics, especially those with minority opinions; once the ability to affect the authority has been called into question, objection to that authority inevitably follows.  We don’t like being ruled.  We don’t like not being equal with everyone.

We can’t be equal to Jesus though.  We can’t be him, nor can we control him.  We can’t make him require less righteousness from us, nor can we convince him to adjust his definition of righteousness until we’re comfortable with it.  Adoring him, actual and proper adoration, would just remind us of those uncomfortable truths.

So it’s hard for us to do it.  Instead we change the story.  We make him our friend or our neighbor, rather than our Lord.  We make him a symbol, a metaphor, an idea, rather than a person to who we would have to submit.  We try to make him adorable in the friendly, cute, and harmless sense–like an adorable puppy–but only pay lip service to the idea that in the end, “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess” that he is our rightful ruler and judge (Philippians 2:10-11, NASB).

You see, Loki is actually right: we are made to be ruled, and seeking freedom from that rule only makes us unhappy.  We were just never made to be ruled by Loki.  There’s a twist for us, and that twist begins at Christmas.

Whereas Loki ruled through fear and was eager to kill any who opposed him, Christ in meekness came to his enemies in the least scary, most vulnerable way possible: he came as a baby.  We deserved fear and death, but he came on an altogether different mission than conquest; he came to join us, to reach out to us, to persuade us, to redeem us, and to give us life.

He could have come in power with a host of angels as his unstoppable army, but he’s humble, so he became vulnerable (a baby) and isolated (in a barn).  He could have come to force us to submit, to remind us that he is God and we are dust, but he’s good, so he became a human being like us to walk with us and face struggles just like we do, starting with the basic struggles of finding a roof and a bed.  He could have come to destroy us–we are rebels to his rightful throne–but he’s merciful, so he came with an invitation back to himself, a chance to use the freedom we craved to choose the God who would sacrifice himself for our sake.

We adore the newborn Jesus at Christmas because, as a poor baby in a cave, our rightful and unavoidable Lord revealed what sort of Lord he was:  merciful, good, and humble.  We can’t avoid being ruled–we were created for Jesus, who is our Lord even if we shut tight our eyes, plug our ears, shake our heads and shout that it isn’t true–but if we object to his rule we don’t understand it.

Christmas is a chance to encounter him again, to glimpse his character and see how it answers our objections.  He is worthy of worship; we don’t need to defend ourselves from him.  O come, let us adore him.

Herald Angels

One of the few sitcoms I watch is How I Met Your Mother.  If you’ve never watched it, don’t be confused by the name.  It isn’t a show about meeting anyone–the titular Mother is a McGuffin–it’s a show about five friends, their ridiculous experiences, and their ridiculous reactions to other more ordinary experiences.

Naturally I don’t approve of all of its content and messages–the five friends have a sort of incoherent worldview and morality that could only make sense in a culture of affluent narcissistic decadence (like mine)–but if I needed to approve entirely of a thing before enjoying it, I would be a sad lonely old fellow.  (Meanwhile Jesus, who had much more right to moral snobbishness, went to parties with sinners and was neither sad nor lonely.)

I do however entirely approve of the show’s whimsy and joie-de-vivre.  My favorite example so far happened in the show’s 100th episode when Barney, one of the main characters, led the cast in a large musical number complete with dancing.  Frankly, I don’t expect large musical numbers from sitcoms, but I wish I could.  I like choreographed songs and dances almost as much as I like hero stories.  They’re people singing and playing together, and enjoying singing and playing together.

A lot of people hate them, of course.  The most common complaint I’ve heard is that they aren’t realistic:  large groups of people don’t spontaneously burst into the same song, don’t then create delightful polyphony, and most certainly don’t dance around each other in complex synchronized patterns.

In a very obvious sense, that complaint is true.  I’m typing this in my local library.  There are between 50 and 100 people here.  If I started singing and dancing, I suspect that none of them would join me.  Also I would probably get ejected by the library staff.  Expecting otherwise wouldn’t be realistic.

But expecting otherwise would be good, which is the interesting part.  Granting that it isn’t nice to disturb people who are trying to find peace and quiet–I might want to step outside the library first–but I think most people would rather live in a world where musical numbers happen.  After all, the complaint about realism has been around for about as long as musical numbers have been around–millennia–but people still write, perform, and enjoy them.

In fact if I did start singing and dancing, a fair number of people would probably have an impulse to join me, somewhere in that instant before the reasonable side of their personality told them they would be embarrassed.  (They would also know that if they just weren’t afraid of being embarrassed, we would have a lot of fun.)  Most of the rest of the people would probably be interested rather than annoyed.  After all, the phenomenon of Flash Mobs is about this very thing: people wish reality were a bit more like musicals, and they want to see such a reality even if they don’t feel comfortable joining it.

We just can’t escape that crippling belief that musicals aren’t realistic though, and that being the drabber sort of realistic is a virtue.  We know from experience that reality is something starker, more sober, and more practical.  We’re actually a bit suspicious about anything that might make us sing and dance publicly with strangers.  Any such inspiration would have to be either delusional or chemically induced.

At the very best it’s certainly childish.  Children can live in a world of happy fancies, but being an adult means accepting darkness, accepting the stifling of dreams, accepting the unavoidable presence of sadness.  This is why we show musicals to kids and then stop watching them ourselves.  As adults we watch things like The Dark Night and Saving Private Ryan instead, movies which reinforce our understanding of a harsher “truth.”  Musicals may be fun occasionally, but we think they’re lies.

Which is probably why as adults we have so much trouble embracing Christmas the way we did as children.  We’ve told ourselves too often that Christmas is a lie.

You see, Christmas had the world’s first musical number, the world’s first Flash Mob.  A group of shepherds were minding their own business when suddenly the world around them erupted with angels.

I think we tend to imagine the angels as being rather staid figures, wearing choir robes and primly singing about God as they floated in the night sky.  Our imaginations have also been beaten down by our grim view of reality, apparently.  Frankly, I think if angels want to put on a show, we ought to imagine that they’re at least as effective at it as Gilbert and Sullivan were.

And make no mistake, when a multitude of angels “suddenly appeared” (Luke 2:13) to the shepherds, they were putting on a show, probably one that they had been looking forward to for a long time.  Finally they would get to show us that our entire view of reality was wrong and that the truth was something happier, brighter, and musical.

The Eternal Son of God, who had every right to be mad enough to destroy us, was instead, as the song, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” puts it, “pleased as man with men to dwell,” bringing reconciliation, healing, light, and life.  He came to share with us a bigger reality, to show us the Joy and Love that’s forever and irrevocably in God, and then to invite us out of our grim small delusion into that happy truth.

He invites us into a reality where overflowing joie-de-vivre is the status quo, the sort of reality that can produce a host of singing and celebrating angels on a random hillside, because it has singing and celebration in abundance.

Christmas is when we glimpse that, and we’re invited to “join the triumph of the skies,” and “with angelic hosts proclaim [that] Christ is born in Bethlehem.”  Christmas is when we’re reminded that celebration is the true realism; the musicals were right all along.

With Us

The show Burn Notice is about a super-spy turned vigilante who helps the needy folks of Miami.  Its first few seasons were fun–(which is in no way intended to advocate vigilantism)–and one of the best episodes happened in the second half of the second season.  In it Michael, the super-spy, gets taken hostage in a bank robbery, which he then thwarts using his ingeniousness and office supplies.

The bank robbers had planned an elaborate and lucrative heist.  The hostages probably thought they were going to be murdered like bothersome pests.  Michael changed their story, and he changed it in a specific way.

He didn’t try to help them from outside of the bank, aware of but divorced from the danger they faced.  He certainly didn’t try to talk them through how to help themselves.  Instead he joined them and faced the same danger, so that he could protect them from it and ultimately rescue them.

If you read my last post, then you can probably see where this is headed.  Burn Notice here is also the story of Christmas, specifically the part of Christmas expressed in the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

After we’ve heard the name translated enough times, we lose the spark in it.  We start hearing it as something rather wishy-washy and humdrum.  Mostly we think of it purely in terms of location: God is with us the way that my wife might stand in my general vicinity.  We say it in roughly the same way that we might say, “My dog was with me on my nightly walk;” then we imagine it’s supposed to inspire in us the same sort of sentimental feelings we have about our friendly pet, except about Jesus.

It would be better to imagine that we’re trapped in a bank full of dangerous criminals, herded into a small room, and menaced at gunpoint.  Do we want God to be with us in the companionable dog sense or in the vigilante super-spy sense?  One of them is an interesting and fairly random bit of trivia; the other completely transforms the situation.

Immanuel completely transforms our situation, because our situation was terrible.  One of the songs we sing each Christmas–O Come, O Come Emmanuel–is about this.  (As an interesting aside for those who are wondering, “Emmanuel” is the Latin version of “Immanuel,” used since the song was originally in Latin.  “Immanuel” is the English rendering of the Hebrew.)

It’s an unusual Christmas song because of how sorrowful it is.  Even the refrain–“Rejoice! Rejoice!”–is set to a mellow aching tune.  I for one am used to Christmas songs being a bit more cheerful.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a song of anticipation however.  It’s imaginatively located in the despairing trap that existed before the Incarnation, a place of abundant enemies (v. 4) and quarreling friends (v. 7), a place of pervasive darkness (v.6), loneliness (v.1), ignorance (v.2), weakness (v. 3), lawlessness (v. 3), mourning (v.1), captivity (v.1), strife (v.7), and death (v.4 and 6).

In short it reminds us that we weren’t perfectly fine people looking for a friendly companion–we didn’t need someone to be “with us” in that sense–we were people in serious, unavoidable, inescapable trouble.  Only with that in mind can we start to understand the promise of Immanuel, “God is with us.”

Immanuel is an insurrection, a reversal, a fierce and amazing transformation.  We’re surrounded by threats, but in our midst we find someone who doesn’t have to be afraid.  We’re confronted with reasons for despair, but in our midst we find someone who can restore our hope and comfort us.  We can’t help ourselves, but in our midst we find someone who is powerful enough to overcome every danger.

In our midst we find our savior.

Michael the spy became a hostage and “changed the game,” to use the cliché.  The Son of God became human–he joined us in the mess we’d made of the world–and he changed everything.

That’s the promise of Immanuel.  That’s the story of Christmas.  That’s why we rejoice.