Between Thanksgiving and Christmas: Missing Something?
For a good month, people from around the world celebrate “the Holidays,” or “holy days.” Here in the United States, it begins with Thanksgiving, or even earlier (once people get Halloween off the shelves and out of their heads), and ends with New Year’s Day.. Actually, only Thanksgiving and Christmas have a claim as “holy days.” Other observances are either non-religious or not really winter holidays. Let’s face it, we Christians are responsible for the existence of these “holy days,” and we don’t always treat them as holy ourselves.
Putting aside the silly, sentimental nonsense (Yeah, even I can get pulled into a sappy movie, but I know that isn’t really Christmas…and as far as I know, they don’t make Thanksgiving movies), these two days represent two of the greatest attitudes any person can have—thankfulness and generosity. We trace the former back to colonial times and the gratitude of settlers who nearly starved, who thanked God for delivering them (No, not to the Indians/Native Americans, though I’m sure they did express appreciation for their part, as believers they thanked God to whom they ultimately traced their rescue). The custom of harvest time gratitude has largely slipped away from most people, though many of my family were and are farmers; as a result, last year’s drought (2012) reminded me that we still depend on Him for rain, among other things.
The early Church didn’t celebrate Christmas, although we owe them the December date, as the so-called “church calendar” was created to help teach Bible history. They linked the birth of Jesus, the birth of a new year, and the new birth. No one knows exactly when Jesus was born, even the year is uncertain, as Pope Benedict has reminded us. The preeminent Christian holy days are Good Friday and Easter, for these days mark the preeminent message of the Christian faith—the sacrificial death of Christ by which sinners are redeemed and the victorious resurrection by which redeemed sinners are assured eternal life! The birth of Jesus is certainly noteworthy, more suitable for celebration than the birthday of some celebrity, and set apart by the unusual, that is unique, circumstances of his conception. Although Christians do acknowledge these, Jesus’ birth was not in itself a saving act. Moreover, as time has passed, the celebration has drifted further and further into a secularized event, so much so that I was amazed to hear that, as a Christian religious figure, Santa Claus could no longer be a part of school celebrations! Really? Since when is Santa Claus the least bit religious. Even the origins of the “jolly old elf” from a Catholic Saint Nicholas, whose name morphed into the more familiar one, are almost never a part of the present celebration.
However, to be honest, I don’t mind the plethora of secular traditions of Christmas, as long as they do not totally overshadow Jesus and the Christmas story recorded in Scripture, or the wholesome values tied to the true holy day. I have a hunch that maybe Jesus doesn’t mind either. Christmas, as long as it remains Christmas, is a huge opportunity to share the story of Him whose birth we celebrate; in fact, it is, in itself, an invitation to learn more. Indeed, I have wondered how many have come to know Jesus Christ because of the craziness of Christmas.
That’s not to say we couldn’t do a bit better. This season has become so secularized and, dare I say, so self-centered that we need to stop and really think about what we’re doing! Instead of a season where thanksgiving leads to generosity, we have gluttony giving way to greed. As an occasional taxi driver, I learned that Thanksgiving eve is a big night for drinking! Then we follow with a big day for eating, gorging into virtual hibernation, were it not for a day filled with football. It’s not unusual to hear the day called “turkey day,” which I’d accept if it referred to those who leave little time for thanks amidst their stuffing and gridiron worship.
I grew up in an extended family that always gathered for these holidays; it was family time and good food among those who knew personally to be thankful for a good harvest because their lives depended on it. They were good times within a good family, good but not perfect. I am thankful for my heritage and memories of those times together. Since then I’ve learned to be thankful for the hard times, too, like the one I’ve been passing through and may not yet have finished.
If you will permit, thought, I’d like to move away from what could easily be a sermon and talk to the greater culture. I recently read Millennium, a novel by Jack Anderson called published in 1994. I was impressed at how prescient he was about all the Y2K nonsense, well before it started. What intrigued me even more was his use of a story, about an alien visitor’s warning, to address the decline in culture that has only worsened in these 18 years. The narcissism and hedonism I see today was something he saw already 20 years ago, along with the violence, greed, and selfishness that are hard to miss. The visitor brought a warning that the inhabitants of the galaxy were ready to destroy humanity as too sick to be allowed to infect other worlds. In this plot, humanity’s only hope was what we’d almost call revival, revival of character, perhaps, not a religious revival, but a revival nonetheless.
Philosophers once pondered what they called “man’s inhumanity to man.” Even popular shows and movies will take a stab at trying to comprehend or explain what appears to be an almost destructive quality to humankind. The horrendous murder of 20 6- and 7-year -olds brought such questions to the forefront of this holiday season. Idealistic hopes for a secular utopia crumble in the face of inexplicable evil. I think of other evils and wonder how any rational person could consider, let alone do them. The world once saw little value in human life; the baby, the elderly, the sick or injured, even women were regarded as almost valueless, easily replaced, and therefore disposable. Now those favoring abortion have taken the first major steps back toward the times when human life was not precious, strongly supported by seeing human life as only a consequence of random chance, as evolution teaches (A year later, here is someone else sharing my concern). It’s not the weapons that people use but the broken and twisted thinking, bereft of the divine spark that cherishes all life, especially the life of pre-born infants and young children. Is it any wonder that the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus isn’t a comfortable part of many Christmas parties?
People tell us that, since truth is relative and morality up for grabs, all religions and cultures have equal value, although I suspect most of the proponents of this notion believe they have no value at all! Using the idea of freedom of speech, they would deny it to any but themselves and those who agree; they shame us into silence while they reserve to themselves the right and the power to teach our children, something they’ve already begun. Rather than cherish the amazing story of America’s founding and the treasure of its constitutional freedoms, they have been slowly burying the story where they could not change it. We live in an increasingly hostile environment where “in your face” is the norm and rhetoric walks on the edge of violence and hatred, accusing it of others while it simmers and even explodes out from their conversation. In their eagerness to escape the morality or judgment of God, they have rejected everything good that came along with faith, even as they attempt to deny there ever was any good.
The problem is gratitude turns to gluttony, and generosity becomes greed. Those who reject faith in God and the heaven he promises seek to create a heaven on earth, a utopia where everything is wonderful and life is good. Here’s a shocking but profound truth: bad people will never find utopia, because they are not fit to live there! (and I’m not referring only to child killers)! Even with the Bible’s vision and some experience with Christian believers who live lives of character, I still have trouble imagining heaven. I’m just too familiar with “the dark side.” Like Luke Skywalker, I struggle to keep it at bay, but many have yielded to its enticements. The evidence is the emptiness of life lived only for oneself. How many celebrities have killed themselves while living the life that many others covet? Money, success, and fame are not enough; even with them, people become angry, bitter, and lonely, to the point of self-destruction, whether by bullet or slower means such as drugs and alcohol.
We’ve now reached the point where we’ve chosen a government that promotes these values while it promises utopia, even as the ones who promise almost openly demonstrate their cynicism and lack of good faith. These deceptions have been uttered before, and history tells the story of the disasters that follow, from the horrors of life within the Soviet Union and North Korea to the financial meltdown in Greece. The pattern is as old as the fable of the golden egg-laying goose: destroy the goose and lose the gold! It’s not brain surgery or astrophysics; it is common sense. Ah, but who studies fables any more?!
I have friends for whom 2012 was less than great. This year, they’re pulling back from all the spending of Christmas. They are planning to put together a care package for two Latino families who are desperately needy—clothes, money for groceries, shoes for a couple of the kids, and a few toys. At home, the plan is a few creative “home made” gifts, what we might actually call creative kindnesses. Instead of griping about their setbacks in business, the economy, or the election, they are choosing to appreciate what they have and then share from that.
Friend, I’m not recommending any particular style of celebration or holiday activity. That is for you to choose. I am suggesting that you stop and think. What is the direction of your life? Is it a direction that truly points toward a future of love, joy, and prosperity, what once we called “the good life”? Will greed, self-preoccupation, sex, hanging out, playing games, looking for the government to provide what you need; will your growing anger and bitterness take you to the promised land? Ignore the common retort that you are as good as the next guy…or gal…and ask yourself: “Are you growing into a good person, one who deserves the right to live the good life, one who will help others achieve what the government can never give?
For Christian believers, this is no rhetorical question. Faith without works is dead, and religion without love is worthless (as I discussed recently). If we allow ourselves to fall into the common mindset that looks for an earthly heaven, we are most foolish because we know better. Jesus taught, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” and he will provide everything you need, now and always. For us, gluttony is just like coming to a feast and eating like there will never be another meal, eating like a starving man when we have already been well fed. For us, greed makes no sense, for God has given us the most important thing, a guarantee of life, both abundant and eternal; what need have we for earthly treasure that will give us neither?
For you who are not believers, I wonder if you realize what this “heaven on earth” you have, hope for, or imagine really is. Without character, without decency, without compassion, with only gluttony and greed and promiscuity and anger and hatred and lust and resentment and bitterness, and finally with loneliness, the promised utopia looks exactly like hell! Even without God, I would prefer my lifestyle to that, but I am not without God. He is real. His way laid out by multiple human authors in what we now call the Bible is the only way that makes sense. Perhaps you’ve been told that the Christian life is boring in its stifling morality; that is one of the devil’s favorite lies, one he’s been telling since the very beginning. Having no law and no morality is not freedom; that is slavery, and slavery is never happy! True freedom comes in the truth of Jesus’ way, and it isn’t boring (despite the fact that some Christians choose to live that way!).
In Anderson’s book, a character gets hold of an alien device that essentially gives him whatever he wants. He uses it in an increasingly depraved way, and then he dies, as the alien wisely observes that such is always the result of that set of choices. That’s the truth of a life of gluttony and greed: “There is a way that seems right to a man and it is the way of death.” The difference between a life-saving medicine and poison is often nothing more than the amount; too much of a good thing is deadly. Our current way of thinking seems to be this: find a cure for over-eating, dangerous sex, unintended conception, laziness, and self-indulgence, so we may keep doing what we’re doing. Of course, leaders are more than willing to promise, even though they know very well they cannot deliver. If they could, it wouldn’t change much; an excess of such things will destroy life, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
So I recommend you use this time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day to consider whether yours is a life of gratitude and generosity or one of gluttony and greed. Then, if necessary, make a change. Come over to the side of light, joy, forgiveness, hope, and a future. Furthermore, let’s not keep the “alien visitation,” the coming of Jesus, a secret. Let’s make a point of passing the truth along.
You see, a lot of people who need to hear this won’t be reading it. They aren’t likely to listen or watch, even if I record and post it. They will only hear if you tell them. In Millennium, the alien came to change the entire human race to save it from destruction. Jesus came for the same reason, but in both cases, a campaign to get people to think and then change requires a communications miracle. I don’t believe it to be a telecommunications miracle but a human one, one where we take the “alien’s” message to our families, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It was Jesus’ command that we do so, and most haven’t bothered even to try. I hope you, my friend, will be one of those who will bother.
And, in the sense I’ve discussed here, “Happy Holy Days!”
(updated, December 19, 2012, November 24, 2013)