Let’s keep Christ in the Easter egg basket!

Over the centuries, especially since the Enlightenment, it’s become fashionable to debunk or disprove Christianity—or, more recently (“recent” could mean anytime over the last century and more), simply to tailor and remodel various elements of the Bible, Extreme Makeover-style, to make it more suitable to what we like. To be fair, a lot of this has been prompted, or fueled, by even longer centuries of ridiculous, just-so-story assumptions about Scripture that have been hammered home as infallible truth, coupled with arrogant self-righteousness taking its stand under the banner of Christ: We’re right, so you’d better do as we say. With those menu choices, served up with that attitude, who’d want to eat at that establishment?!

But thankfully, in more recent years, a lot of people, groups, and churches have been working hard to dismantle and move away from the awful attitude of self-righteousness / judgmentalism / hypocrisy / arrogance that has driven hordes of people away from anything to do with Christianity, or with religion in general. Fewer voices, however, have stood out to respond to the debunk / makeover approach—that is, not without tending to fall prey to the arrogance that has been such a stench in religion. One such voice, though, was the evenhanded approach of CS Lewis, the Oxford scholar who reluctantly turned from atheism (which he had previously been intellectually convinced of) to Christianity (which his considerable, and even more notably, honest, intellect eventually also convinced him of). The way he jokingly describes his conversion is that he was “dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God”, because he didn’t want it to be true: intellectual honesty simply forced him to accept it.

"You mean it's TRUE?! Are you s#!ttin' me?!"

So in this just-past-Easter season, when it’s great to go, “Yay! Easter eggs, candy and chocolate bunnies!” or, alternately, “Jesus was wonderful! The best ethical teaching and example ever! We should be transformed by that, as if in new life! Please don’t give me that ‘resurrection’ nonsense, though,” I’ll just let him speak for himself on some of those matters. (There are a lot of other “alternate” ideas these days about Christianity, many taking the form of very inventive—and heartily tiresome, because they’re the result of such an appalling travesty of “scholarship”—suggestions that the New Testament documents as we have them aren’t reliable historical records, or even don’t accurately represent the actual teachings of the earliest Christians, even though in both cases the opposite has abundantly been proven to be true; and others take the form of equally ludicrous ideas that the “point” of Christianity is something to do with us, with our identity or psychology or some other aspect of the human makeup—which neatly takes the focus off that unsettling person Jesus, and puts it on us. Yet if you were to suggest that this is actually a subtle form of putting people in the central place of God, you’d get the most piously affronted objections!)

The following is Lewis’ essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” (1950, available in a collection of his essays, God In the Dock [1970], first published as a longer edition in the U.K. as Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics):

“What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” This is a question which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us? The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it. But perhaps the questioner meant what are we to make of Him in the sense of “How are we to solve the historical problem set us by the recorded sayings and acts of this Man?” This problem is to reconcile two things. On the one hand you have got the almost generally admitted depth and sanity of His moral teaching, which is not very seriously questioned, even by those who are opposed to Christianity. In fact, I find when I am arguing with very anti-God people that they rather make a point of saying, “I am entirely in favour of the moral teaching of Christianity”—and there seems to be a general agreement that in the teaching of this Man and of His immediate followers, moral truth is exhibited at its purest and best. It is not sloppy idealism, it is full of wisdom and shrewdness. The whole thing is realistic, fresh to the highest degree, the product of a sane mind. That is one phenomenon.

The other phenomenon is the quite appalling nature of this Man’s theological remarks. You all know what I mean, and I want rather to stress the point that the appalling claim which this Man seems to be making is not merely made at one moment of His career. There is, of course, the one moment which led to His execution. The moment at which the High Priest said to Him, “Who are you?” “I am the Anointed, the Son of the uncreated God, and you shall see Me appearing at the end of all history as the judge of the Universe.” But that claim, in fact, does not rest on this one dramatic moment. When you look into His conversation you will find this sort of claim running through the whole thing. For instance, He went about saying to people, “I forgive your sins”. Now it is quite natural for a man to forgive something you do to him. Thus if somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, “Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it.” What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, “That is all right, I forgive him”? Then there is a curious thing which seems to slip out almost by accident. On one occasion this Man is sitting looking down on Jerusalem from the hill above it and suddenly in comes an extraordinary remark— “I keep on sending you prophets and wise men.” Nobody comments on it. And yet, quite suddenly, almost incidentally, He is claiming to be the power that all through the centuries is sending wise men and leaders into the world. Here is another curious remark: in almost every religion there are unpleasant observances like fasting. This Man suddenly remarks one day, “No one need fast while I am here.” Who is this Man who remarks that His mere presence suspends all normal rules? Who is the person who can suddenly tell the School they can have a half-holiday?

On the one side clear, definite moral teaching. On the other, claims which, if not true, are those of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men. There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him: “Are you the son of Brahma?” he would have said, “My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.” If you had gone to Socrates and asked, “Are you Zeus?” he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?” he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, “Are you Heaven?” I think he would have probably replied, “Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.” The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects—Hatred—Terror—Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.

What are we to do about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena? One attempt consists in saying that the Man did not really say these things, but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God—that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily. Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.

Then we come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear. I heard a man say, “The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival, evidence that the human personality survives death.” On that view what happened to Christ would be what had always happened to all men, the difference being that in Christ’s case we were privileged to see it happening. This is certainly not what the earliest Christian writers thought. Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in ghost-survival. On the contrary, they believed in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that He was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse”. A new mode of being has arisen. That is the story. What are we going to make of it?

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.


Ukrainian Easter eggs: sometimes the most beautiful things seem the most unlikely even to exist.

I’ll close with one other observation about something Lewis said there. I’ve heard it objected, at various times, that “I can’t accept Lewis’ ‘truth vs lunacy’ contention; it’s shallow and simplistic, just two-dimensional.” That’s an example of the intellectual dishonesty that is the opposite of Lewis’ approach, however: and in this case, it’s easy to see why. Try making that same objection in court, phrased as “I can’t accept the other side’s contention of ‘facts vs lies’; that’s shallow and two-dimensional.” If you did that, you’d get either laughed out of court, or more likely threatened with contempt. Of course the resurrection (and other things about Jesus, namely his deity as Lewis talked about here) comes down to facts vs lies: that’s the only thing that any events, recorded as if they actually happened, can ever come down to. Lots of other implications about their meaning for others can be drawn from there, of course; but the events themselves—provided one is going to stay consistent in that irritating characteristic, intellectual honesty—can be talked about only from two perspectives: either they happened or they didn’t.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some chocolate bunnies to finish devouring. The chocolate is as tasty as good ethical teaching is! But neither one is what Easter is about, of course. Easter is a lot more wonderful than either of those, more beautiful and “unlikely” even than intricately designed Ukrainian Easter eggs. I hope you will actually find that far tastier.

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Far cloud sea

Soft sight caught on the road home
dark leaden midnight expanse
unexpected silver pearl light
dim glimmers, nebulous pools
host of lights in silent ballet
at their heart now see the silver pearl

this dance slow rolling
now like swells on the sea
I see now, steady flowing
but where water gives back
the pearl light, these swells
open windows beyond

a sea like the sea
over the far horizon
slow flowing velvet rolls
beckons as a mirror
of the deep sea of home
come and see, come and see

windows to the pearl
who sees both these seas
reaching here, afar there
embraces distance close to home
look to me, look beyond
come further up, further in

unpriceable pearl
radiant beams from your face
watching over the night
beyond all leaden dark
your sea opens, beyond all hope
there is a way through, silver windows

come with us, steady rolling
over far horizon
farther up, farther on
than your heart imagined
when the leaden expanse
might hold back all breathing

lift up your face
let it shine on us
your peace reaches home
not far from us at all
embrace and breathe home
through silver windows

we sail through, over the seas
nearer than we thought
silver light of home

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The day after Christmas
angel choirs have retired
shepherds back to their flocks
new parents reeling
to grasp what happened
a child whom angels sing
poops his swaddling clothes

There will come harrowing days
more strange visits, flee from threats
a lifetime ahead
the world changes to see
—but in between history
countless quiet days
from child to man

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given
unseen by most
unheard or unknown
feed a child, raise a boy
school a lad, train a youth
could be you, could be us

Day by day

So miracles welcomed in song
settle in as a long winter’s nap
few headlines, few rumors
silent nights and days
one life among others
there with you, there with us
the God who is here
Here with us—daily life
here with us—rest and toil
joy and sorrow, morn and evening
one of us, one of you
that is the reason
for all these days
not a season, but a lifetime
A life begins and ends in glory
continues far past the end—
in between triumphal bookends
here am I, here are you
unheard, most unknown
a life among others
here with us—God is here
Silent nights and days
are the reason—here with us
joy and sorrow for a lifetime
here with us—God with us
how silently arms about you
how silently day by day
countless days—here am I

With you

Season ends, miracle begins
here with us—for a lifetime
all these days, all your days
here with you

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The Magi and the mall

This is the time of year (approaching Christmas, in case you’re reading this at any other time of year) when Christian believers celebrate traditions both new and old, including one of the most venerable of all:

The tradition of bemoaning how commercialized Christmas has become.

In fact, you could put it as a sort of liturgical lament. Let’s just reword Psalm 12 a little bit:

Oy! Christmas at the mall! God, I don't have to go in there, do I? "Angels fear to tread", and all that.

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
those who really celebrate Christmas have vanished from the human race.
Everyone competes for parking spaces;
with their lips they say, “Merry Christmas,”
or at least, “Happy holidays,”
but in the malls they act like a$$#@!%$.

This, by the way, is one of the many reasons I wasn’t selected to write the Bible. I’m not supposing anyone would be delusional enough actually to like hassling with the crowds, demo-derby parking, and frayed tempers of shopping at Christmastime (and if there are any of you out there like that—I don’t want to know); but actually, if you live in an urban area especially, you should already know how to navigate crowded, manic traffic / parking / sidewalks / malls or any of the rest of that. Granted, at the holiday season it’s all amped up by several orders of magnitude, but it’s not like the attitudes are anything really different from any other time of year. So what’s the real problem that bums Christians out at Christmas?

Owooooo! Christmas is so commerrrrrrrrrrcialiiiiized! Let's goooo shopiiiiiiinnngg!

Maybe it really is the commercialism itself, like I had said. Oh no, the Christmas “c”-word! You never heard such a howl raised by Christians over that travesty of what should be a holy season! Of course, the only reason you do hear people wailing about that is because, like everyone else, they’re—watch this—out at the malls, buying commercial goods like everyone else. Or, they’re watching Christmas TV specials, like everyone else, which like all other TV shows are sponsored by commercial advertisements. (Hint to people who hate TV commercials: hello, mute button?) Where else would people encounter “all the commercialism of Christmas” if they weren’t wading hip-deep into it?
So here’s a little Christmas mall tale, maybe to lift some shopping-frazzled spirits:
A Christmas mall tale, maybe to lift some shopping-frazzled spirits
I know, the title is redundant, but I needed some kind of title header there. One Christmas season, when the survival-of-the-fittest-shopper struggle was in full agony at a large mall, a frazzled young retail clerk glanced from the pile of tangled clothes she was gathering off the floor, to see the feet of yet another shopper standing before her. Great, another aggravated question from somebody I’ve never done anything wrong to, she groaned to herself. But, “May I help you?” is what she said, as she looked up at the shopper’s face.
A bearded gentleman, with years of cares etched into his face but lifted by smiling wrinkles at his eyes, surprised her by stooping down slightly. “This is for you, he said, handing the surprised young woman a small gift-wrapped box. “Wh—” she stammered, but the gentleman turned, and vanished into the surging crowd of shoppers before she could ask him what it was about. She didn’t have time, at the moment, even to open the box to find out what was in it, and just stuck it under the counter where she could retrieve it later; but she went about her work again with a mildly bemused, gently smiling expression as she thought of the man’s seemingly random act. She was nicely surprised, in turn, to find her customers not nearly as irritable as they had seemed earlier; or maybe it was her different outlook, she wasn’t sure.
About the same time, further down the mall, a young mother was trying to jostle bags that wanted to fall out of the back of a stroller, in which her young boy was letting her know it was far past high time for his nap, while she was also trying to comfort or distract him, all while trying to edge out of the surging foot traffic toward a wall where she could put things down and care for her son, a struggle she was rapidly losing.

If the stern looks hadn't worked, this was her next tactic.

“Please, let me,” said a voice, and from her contorted angle balancing packages and stroller, she managed to peer around to see a kindly woman, about her mother’s age, reaching out to deftly gather the collapsing bags and help nudge the stroller toward the wall. She also used her ample girth to help part a way through the crowd, aided by an occasional Oh, no you didn’t glance at some unusually aggressive shopper, which served as pretty good traffic control. As soon as the young mother and child (and shopping bags) were safely gathered by the mall’s side, so that she was able to pick up her child and comfort him, the other woman smiled assuringly, patted the young mother on her shoulder, and stepped into the river of shoppers, gone before the younger woman could say, “Thank you.” She wasn’t sure if she was just able to reload all her bags so that the stroller was easier to manage after that, or if the moment’s break and help had let both her and her child gather their breath and be calmed by each other’s touch, but their path through the rest of the mall seemed a little easier after that, even though the human river was just as noisy and turbulent.
Out in the parking lot, a man who had done some shopping during his office lunch break returned to find that his car had been sideswiped by whoever had just vacated the parking slot next to his: it wasn’t catastrophic damage, but there was an ugly dent and gash in the paint, and there also wasn’t a note from whoever had caused it. “[String of colorful language]!” he exclaimed, to no one in particular. “Why the [more colorful language, in a rhetorical question about why this had happened to him, now]?!”

Okay, so it wasn't quite THIS bad. This was at the NEXT mall.

“Are you all right?” said a voice behind him, which would have startled him if he hadn’t been so caught up in rage. Another guy about his age, but who instead of wearing business attire looked more like he was on his way back to a dusty factory or warehouse, had just walked by. “Some [equally colorful description of what had happened, plus his personal assessment of the driver who had done it]!” the man fumed, waving helplessly at his car. “Thank God at least you weren’t between your car and the other guy’s,” smiled the warehouse worker ruefully, as he dug a slightly grease-stained card out of his wallet. “Here, if it helps, I’ve been taking my cars to this guy since I learned to drive. And no I don’t work for him! He’ll give you good work at a good price, your insurance should cover it no problem,” he said, as he handed the businessman the card.
The man glanced down at the card, but a moment later when he looked up to say “Thanks,” the other man had already moved off, and he could just see the top of his head weaving through the cars as he made his way toward his own vehicle. It didn’t remove the dent or scrape in his car; but somehow it set him a bit more back on track, as he tucked the card into his wallet and got into his car. “At least he stopped to do something,” he thought, as a slight, grateful smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Wouldn’t hurt for there to be more of that around.”
After the old gentleman, the matronly woman, and the young blue-collar worker had given their gifts, they each returned to their own homes by a different way; and the retail clerk, the young mother, and the businessman treasured up all these things in their hearts. Meanwhile, on her break, the young clerk finally had a chance to open the gift the kindly older gentleman had surprised her with; inside there was nothing but a note.
“If even this gesture made a difference to lift your day, that was the gift I hoped to give you,” it said. “If others noticed that difference in you, then you’ve already been giving that gift to others.”

It doesn't matter where you are, who you are, or how you give of your heart.

If you encounter anyone in the commercial-jungle-that-is-a-mall-at-Christmas who’s starving for good cheer, share some; if they are thirsty for someone with a kind heart, refresh them with that. Do not be overcome by commercialism, but overcome commercialism by embracing it as part of your Christmas giving and love.
Lamentation? Howls? Yeah, it’s a noisy season, depending on where you go—but sh, listen there a moment! There, just beyond the noise of the mall; there among the twinkling lights and decorations that really are reminders of the Christ whose birth this is all about; listen—there are angels singing. In fact, they’re inviting you to join them. Oh, and the Magi? Who said there were only three? You look like one of them too, if you ask me.

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Silent night

Out walking late at night—calm, still air, crisp enough to keep you alert, bright under a near-full moon—not a sound but my shoes soft crunching on the street, nothing else moving (if you don’t count my über-spazzy little Jack Russell, Connor, whom you don’t “walk” so much as “manage at the end of a leash”, because he is an “adorable maniac”; but he himself is a whole other story, yet he was the reason I was walking outside so late).

This blog post brought to you by Connor, who needed "walkies".

Silent night. Approaching Christmas as we are at this time, all is calm, all is bright—yet here I am also in a place on the edge of a vast, rather sparsely-populated area, dark enough that the only lights are an occasional window peeking through trees, and the ambient glow of cities many miles to the north and south. And as I looked west across even darker open country, I was looking across about 1200 miles toward home, because right now I am living very far from there.

And the peace, but also the quietness, darkness, and distance, spoke softly about other people on this silent night: What are all the stories of people in this world—silent except to those who are right around them, or if by some chance part of their stories are published in print or online? (And even then, no one on Earth but themselves can know the full stories of their own lives.) Silence for some people is indeed peace and blessedness; for others, silence can be the only response they are capable of on receiving some unexpected weight of news—about loved ones, about job or home. Silence can be the heart searching for the right words, the right concepts even to wrap itself around, in order to begin to comprehend something deeply unsettling; it can be the heart sharing in the silence that surely heaven also experiences, when a loved one slips from this life into the next. Silence can be the heart wondering where everyone else has gone, when no one, no place, nothing familiar seems to be anywhere near.

But silence does not mean emptiness, or void. Even deep space, which we used to think was largely void, turns out to be alive, churning with particles and forces in a rich cosmic symphony; and its silence is only to our teeny ears, designed to hear things only through more substantial mediums like air, water, or sometimes solid objects (like your apartment or hotel wall, when neighbors are oblivious to the fact that they’re “entertaining” the community). Here, for example, are some of the actual sounds, almost music, emanating from various bodies in our solar system (a 7 minute video; the first 30 seconds or so actually are silent):

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gifts are given! We can look up at the night heavens, and think the lights there are soaring in elegant silence—or that we are left in utter isolation beneath an unreachable cosmos—but even there we are surrounded by a wealth of song.

Then—still on my night walk—I looked back down at Earth, draped in black velvet and shades of charcoal but also washed with the moon’s pale sapphire light, and all the people in the world around me—unseen, silent from where I stood—came to mind again. And more deeply and softly than the dark quietness and far distance, now there spoke to me the closeness:

I am not far from any of you. In me you live and move and have your being.

I wanted them to know that. I am sure God wanted them to know that far more than I could ever want it. I would wish for people to know they are not left alone, that just as we are immersed in the music of the heavens whether or not we know it, we are also immersed in God even when we’ve forgotten it, or when life has led us to think we are isolated out under a dark sky, in a desolate wilderness. Maybe I’ve let a few other people know that now, by writing this; but now I also have more of an idea how to let people know it whenever I encounter them, anywhere, besides through this article.

And, maybe, you reading this now also know a little more that you can pass along to others, who may be standing alone in the dark as it seems to them, enveloped in the music of heaven but not realizing it. Because another part of the way God immerses us in himself is through one another, through you and me ourselves as we touch others’ hearts and lives.

We may not know the music is enveloping us; when we hear it, we may not even understand the words. But on that silent night, O how silently you and all others are loved.

Oíche chiúin, oíche Mhic Dé, [Silent night, night of God’s Son,]
cách ‘na suan dís araon, [soundly in slumber, the pair together,]
dís is dílse ‘faire le spéis [the pair and love, watching with affection]
naoín beag gnaoigheal, [the small bright beautiful child,]
ceananntais caomh, [darling little one,]

Críost, ‘na chodhladh go séimh, [Christ, calmly asleep,]
Críost, ‘na chodhladh go séimh. [Christ, calmly asleep.]

Oíche chiúin, oíche Mhic Dé, [Silent night, night of God’s Son,]
aoirí ar dtús chuala ‘n scéal; [shepherds first heard the tale;]
Allelúia aingeal ag glaoch, [the angels crying out Alleluia,]
cantain suairc i ngar is i gcéin; [lovely chanting near and far;]

Críost an Slánaitheoir Féin, [Christ, the Savior himself,]
Críost an Slánaitheoir Féin. [Christ, the Savior himself.]

Oíche chiúin, oíche Mhic Dé, [Silent night, night of God’s Son,]
cách ‘na suan dís araon, [soundly in slumber, the pair together,]
dís is dílse ‘faire le spéis [the pair and love, watching with affection]
naoín beag gnaoigheal, [the small bright beautiful child,]
ceananntais caomh, [darling little one,]

Críost, ‘na chodhladh go séimh, [Christ, calmly asleep,]
Críost, ‘na chodhladh go séimh. [Christ, calmly asleep.]

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Peace on Earth. War on Christmas!

Oh sure, everyone is all distracted by the ongoing, and at this rate never-ending, War on Farts that is raging in distant parts of the world to make sure that a condition that could rise up anywhere on Earth, at any time and among any people, will never happen again. Nobody stops to ask how that might ever actually be accomplished, but I suppose it’s the nobility of the effort that makes the endless loss of life worthwhile.

But meanwhile, on the home front, another dastardly assault is under way, which somehow has been going on for nearly two centuries, under our very noses, and we only recently came to recognize it! Never mind how we could miss something so obvious, unless we’re making up an entire imaginary conflict! But of course it’s not imaginary! This is—


Wow. Just saying that is sobering. Imagine—some barbarian in her helicopter in the far north, hovering in wait to shoot reindeer out of the sky; Santa’s cookies banned by White House socialists who force him to be given carrots or broccoli instead; entire Scroogey governments who begrudge benefits for the unemployed. But fortunately, none of these dire threats have materialized (yet); on the other hand, the very real threats may be far worse.

The first is one of the most underhanded. Santa. That’s right; jolly old elf, indeed! More like, jolly old insidious tool of the devil out to replace Christ as the focus of Christmas. The 1823 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more familiarly known as “The Night Before Christmas”) almost singlehandedly set the tone for Christmas as we know it today—from jolly, jelly-bellied Santa, to his levitating reindeer and sleigh, to his illegally entering homes via chimneys, to his bringing gifts for children. Jolly, fun, endearing, holiday merriment and traditions! (If you don’t count the chimney break-ins.) But it’s not what is there that is insidious: it’s what is not there.

Where is the baby Jesus?! Not to mention the snow-covered, exposed-to-the-elements stable, the three kings, and other aspects of Christmas that we know are gospel truth from the Scriptures. I’ll tell you where they are: nowhere, not in that story anyway. Santa just insidiously shows up, in his insidious insidiousness sneaking down the chimneys into our homes and shoving the baby Jesus aside onto a tabletop manger scene. As if aiding and abetting him, a few decades later a foreign queen (Victoria of Britain) was influential in introducing a custom from another foreign country (Germany) (well, and surrounding areas) that by the 1870s had infiltrated most of America: the Christmas tree.

That’s right; the evergreen, a symbol of eternal life? Lights (originally, candles) on it, emblematic of the Light of the world? How naïve. All of those are really symbols of once again shoving baby Jesus aside to replace him with the material things of this world, allegedly gifts given out of love and goodwill, but eventually developing into the mammoth materialistic ballooning behemoth of commercial claptrap that is Christmas! Well, okay, so maybe all that wasn’t planned out as if it were a military strategy.

But it is a war! And all good Christians know there is only one response to the world waging war on us. Be even more aggressive, spiteful, and retaliatory, right back! Fight to eradicate these antiChristmas forces from the world!

(Side note: We don’t want people to think about the fact that, until the early 1800s, Christmas was viewed uncomfortably, if not banned outright, by conservative Protestant Christians in America, because of the holiday’s long association with libation-lubricated revelry, and because that had developed via the Roman Catholic church, which as everyone knew wasn’t a real church. In fact, that’s why “A Visit From St. Nicholas” takes place on “The Night Before Christmas”, instead of what had been the usual Christmas Day visit from St Nick; the poem neatly sidestepped Protestants’ discomfort, and in one move bamboozled people into forgetting Christmas’ boozy past, while shoving Jesus aside from Christmas!) (Not that, you’ll notice, he had exactly been in the spotlight beforehand, anyway, at least not since the original, medieval, solemn observance of Christ’s Mass.)

Not that Christians’ ideas of “fighting anti-Christian [not just anti-Christmas] forces” have ever gone really well:

"Crusaders" v "Saracens": everyone loses

In fact, it only got worse when people tried to weed out the wrong kind of Christians from among the right kind:

Inquisition: Who would Jesus torture?

And people who want to do that that show up even in modern times:

NO ONE expects them!

But we can’t let that stop us. After all, what’s at stake now—even worse than the dastardly insurrection of Santa and Christmas trees—is shopkeepers saying Happy holidays instead of doing God’s will and wishing you a Merry Christmas. Parades get labeled “Holiday”—as if there are any other holidays worth mentioning at that time of year! And government agencies are forbidden to endorse public religious displays—almost as if government is forbidden to endorse religion in this country! And fruitcakes—well, not so big a deal; any other religions who want, can take those.

The stakes are high. Christ needs to be put back into the Christmas from which he really never got kicked out, since after all if you just dig a little beneath the gift wrap or rum nog or the word holiday, there he is, still wanting to give his love and mercy to everyone, no matter what holiday they observe (or none at all).

Now waitaminnit! Where did that come from?! I was talking about a war that it is vital we win!!!

Jesus: War? What about that “peace on Earth” stuff I had the angels singing about?

Me: Huh? Lord, you don’t speak in blogs, do you—?! That seems pretty weird.

Jesus: I can do whatever I want. Plus, consider who’s writing this thing. I mean, have you seen how he thinks?

Me: Huh??

Jesus: Never mind. Anyway, since when is all this “war” stuff with you people? When I was on Earth, did you see me rounding up armies, or even posses for that matter, and taking off after “the infidels”?

Me: Um—

Jesus: All that palm-branch procession into Jerusalem, riding a donkey—did anyone worry whether it was called “Palm Sunday”?

Me: Well, traditions grow over time, and—

Jesus: Tradition?! I feel like I’m in Fiddler on the Roof! How about a tradition of loving your neighbor as yourself? That’s a lot older tradition. How about it?

Me: But—people secularizing a day we remember your birth—

Jesus: You don’t remember to love one another, meaning enemies and all, like I told you a bunch of times? Even supposing those people who say “holiday” instead of “Christmas” were your enemies, you’re not even treating them as good as I told you to treat your real enemies. What kind of “remembering” are you doing?

Me: But they’re trying to take Christ out of—

Jesus: So just put me back in by showin’ ’em a little love. Match, set, game. War won.

Me: But—but what if they still want to get rid of Christmas—get rid of you?

Jesus: [showing scarred hands] Oh, that always works, right? Love ’em anyway.

Me: Uh—I guess that would work. Good idea, O Lord.

Jesus: Of course it’s a good idea! My loving you got you this far, didn’t it?

Me:Um, yep.

Jesus: So, whatever I’ve done for you, just do the same sort of things for others.

Me: That easy? I could do that all year round, not just at Christmas.

Jesus: Duh.


And so the War on Christmas was won without a shot being fired, without a single person having to be tortured by Inquisitors. People just went around and, in the true spirit of Christmas, said, To hell with all this self-righteous arrogance in the name of Christ. No really, to hell with it. There’s no Christmas going on anyway, unless we’re showing Christ through who we are.

Jesus: Duh.

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Adventure (not the theme park kind)

The Christian church is accustomed to calling this time of year (the run-up to Christmas) Advent, from the Latin for “arrival” (like your plane about to land). From God’s standpoint, of course, it could just as well be called Departure, since it also represents the time when his Son was stepping out of heaven into human garb. Now, I know the whole deal about how December isn’t even close to the time of year Jesus was actually born (best estimates put it in spring, around mid-April: you know, America’s render-unto-Caesar time, which could put a whole new twist on the notion of “Christmas gifts”) (not to mention, “coal in your stocking”) (and don’t even start with “Scrooge”!), but we do owe a great debt to our (“our” if you have European ancestry) pre-Christian forbears, whose holidays and customs the church stormed in and grabbed up, like shoppers pounding down the doors of the mall after Thanksgiving, decking them out in Christianized apparel and contributing to our current season of fa-la-la.

The Christmas celebration, as it’s enjoyed in much of the Western world (if you can get past all the cranks and noodges who kvetch about how there’s a “war on Christmas”, and make yours miserable if you say Happy holidays instead of the orthodox Merry Christmas), has indeed inherited and accumulated or invented a wonderful range of festive and heart-warming customs, not counting fruitcake, that should be enjoyed by everyone willing or able to take part in any of them. And those who do celebrate should show the real Christmas spirit by actively welcoming and including those who aren’t usually included in Christian customs, or especially who have no one else to include them at that time of year.

But about 2,010 years ago (give or take: we don’t have that calendar point pinned down, either), back at the run-up to Jesus’ arrival/departure, the little Son was about to enter a rather different scene. His working-class family (stepdad was a tektôn, Greek for a builder in stone or wood, contract laborer, or even general contractor—and yes, for concerned traditionalists out there, it included carpentry)—uprooted by a disruptive census that required people to relocate to the head-of-family’s ancestral town; making an arduous journey of nearly 100 kilometers, by foot or on donkey, with a very pregnant, teenage mom (probably no older than 15, perhaps as young as 13); jostling for space at (probably) a relative’s home when they reached Bethlehem; finding no room in the guest chamber (the “inn”); making do downstairs in the indoor stable (yeah—all you who use hand sanitizer are freaking out about now)—yep, they faced what most would agree are more than the usual hassles approaching Christmastime. (Mary: “I’m not even gonna bother with cards this year. And shopping? Really?!“)

And all that was only the start. Like a bizarre theme-park ride (in a very demented park), the life of Jesus and his family only got weirder from there. The night poor little Mary finally gives birth—and like she could rest after that?—a bunch of scruffy (probably, um, sheep-scented) shepherds show up—likely after having gone to a few other places around town, alarming the neighbors by their unusual quest for a baby (“Let me see if I got this right: you guys roam into town from camping out in the hills, smelling like—well, never mind—and you bunch of men are looking for a baby?! No problem! Make yourselves at home while I call the police, plus Child Protective Services. Holiday eggnog, anyone?”). A week or so later, as Mary and Joseph are at the temple performing a ceremonial duty for the boy, some crazed old guy appears out of nowhere, snatches Jesus from his mom’s arms, and goes off on a ramble about how Jesus is the One sent from God, plus as a bonus, he gives Mary the encouraging forecast that a lot of people will hate her son and that her own heart would be broken by tragedy (Mary: Note to self: leave this part out of next year’s family Christmas email). Not too long after, an entire caravan of Iraqi Zoroastrian priests plus entourage pulls into town, no doubt to the thrill of all the kids (“Mom, is it Cirque du Soleil?”), track down the hapless Mary and Joseph and son, and make a big fuss over him like the old man had done, only this group really knows how to give Christmas gifts. And then that night! Joseph can’t even get away in his sleep: an angel shows up with the cheery news that the king is out to find their son and kill him. (Joseph: “Whatever happened to ‘tidings of comfort and joy’?!”) So they pack up and take off for Egypt, because in those days, Jewish people and their neighbors weren’t yet getting all medieval on each other’s donkeys.

And you probably know most of the story from there (or if not, you can read all about it in the biblical gospels). After a couple more years, when Jesus’ family finally returned from Egypt to their home in Nazareth, his life seemed to get more or less nondescript for the next few decades (so much so that it wasn’t even worth writing about, a gap which led later researchers on fevered quests to figure out where Jesus had been in the mean time, because He must have been studying in some ashram or something! because, I mean, later he came back all guru’d out and everything.

But what a start to a life! And this is the one they call Prince of peace. I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to know a Prince of peace, I’d want to know one who had been through a lot of the same kinds of misadventure, chaos, and crap that I or any of the rest of us have gone through. To really know how to bring people peace, you have to have known what it’s like to go through hell. To my thinking, the fact that he started going through that before he was even born, and that it kept on in the earliest days of his innocent new life, has that cachet of authenticity about it, as if across 2,000 years he’s saying: Yep, I know a bit about what the rest of you go through; I had a taste of it myself, right from the start and even before.

And the fact that this story gets told and retold around the world, every year (never mind whether the dates are right), says a lot about how, for him, it wasn’t just a weird childhood story to pass down to the grandkids; it’s a living memory and real association he has with everyone else, in all the demented misadventures and horrors we may go through—a word of empathy and encouragement from him: I know what you’re going through. I know, I remember, I see it, I am with you.

That’s one of his other names, too: Immanuel— “God with us”. The God who is really there. The Jesus who is with us when nobody else is, and when everybody else is, except that everybody wants to either stifle or harass or kill us.

The Jesus who, a few decades on after the bizarre Christmas story, saw those predictions and threats catch up to him, as finally he was uprooted from not just his home but from life altogether, ganged up on by people who wanted him to find no room anywhere in their world, and who then made good on the death threats that had hounded him 30-some years earlier.

And his Christmas card from those earlier years still echoes at that moment: Yes, I know a bit about what the rest of you go through; I know, I remember, I see it, I am with you.

Frankly, all that sounds pretty horrible for a Christmas greeting; I’m sure all the rest of us (me included) would rather tuck down into the comfort of Christmas carols, cinnamony candles, warm fuzzy clothes and blankets, a crackling fire, colorful lights, decorated tree with presents, creamy hot chocolate or eggnog, lots of other sweet treats, and loved ones all around. Maybe even the near-psychotic experience of shopping at the mall, for those of a more Bear Grylls-type, risk-taking nature.

But somewhere outside, maybe not even far away, are those who may want all those things, but don’t have them, can’t find them, or have lost them; or maybe who no longer want them, because it’s easier to shut them out along with the pain of some deeper heartaches in life. There are some who have all those Christmas treasures, but whose lives have closed in on them from tragedy or illness or a relationship fragmenting like a dropped ornament. And one way or another, in myriad individual stories, they don’t know that the Jesus whose life on Earth began and ended imploding in chaos and tragedy is as much with them too as he was with his parents long ago, or with the comforted people today by the fireside, or with his other, grieving friends long ago when they came to pay helpless respects and were confused to find an empty tomb.

And all the people today may not see him. But they can see us, whether at home, or next door, or on the street, or at work or school, or at the bank or supermarket or Starbucks or [gulp!] mall. And in the sometimes hair-raising, sometimes dull and numbing, sometimes heartrending and agonizing adventures of their lives, we have the chance, all year around (you know those sayings about “Christmas all year long”? this is how to do it!), to let people see Jesus’ compassion in our eyes, his heart in our hearts, his hands in ours reaching out to lift them up—to see him in us as we stand by their side in whatever way we can. Sometimes it might seem all we can do is some feeble gesture, like a smile or offering to help if we can (but they know there’s really not much we can do)—but you never know how very much that can mean to someone; your kindness may have come at just the time when no one else had any kindness at all to spare them. Never underestimate the power of the “feeble”: a baby in a stable is pretty feeble, too, really.

This is the time Jesus can arrive in their lives, his Advent for them—his time to let them know he’s been with them through life’s adventures and this time will not depart, but is with them to the very end—when one day perhaps we can all settle down around a fire with savory treats (maybe even fruitcake[!], for those who like it) and tell the stories over again, to see who had the more unlikely adventures.

But we will see that Jesus himself was there with us through them all.

Happy Advent, merry Christmas, and your Christmas gift is the one that you give—your love and compassion and friendship and stand-by-side encouragement, to everyone you meet, because those are the most treasured gifts of all, and you don’t know whose trees need those gifts under them the most.

Here is a wish for the world, far and near, from a longago song (well, 1984):

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