We can’t stand Christmas for very long.
For the brief 36 hours or so starting around dusk on December 24, we slow down long enough to let the Christmas mystery settle on us. If we don’t kneel at the manger, at least we pause before it. Our hearts tell us in our Christmas Eve services to take the sweet glow of candles and communion with us throughout the week and into the new year. We know it would be right and lovely to do so.
But come the morning of the 26th, and we are ready to get busy again. I have observed this back-to-business compulsion in three busy airports this week—Dallas, Atlanta and Frankfurt (where we are visiting our son Cliff who is stationed nearby). Our highly frenetic society simply can’t stay in Christmas very long. The liturgical calendar calls for us to rejoice in Christmas for a spell, but the vaunted Twelve Days of Christmas is something we experience only in song and never in actual celebration.
We start gearing up for Christmas absurdly early. By Halloween, the American retail machine is in full crank, indoctrinating us on the catechism of materialism, the real American religion. That is, we spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, didn’t know existed shortly before the time of purchase, and will soon no longer want. Our cathedrals are empty and our malls are teeming, thus confirming where our real temples are located. It takes a certain kind of altered state to engage in this orgy of acquisition-- this temple sacrifice-- which is why those saccharine carols play over and over again until we are sufficiently stupefied.
The irony is thick: two months preparing for a feast we hardly take a day to enjoy. It is no surprise that many folks are depressed this time of year. How can any normal human aspire to the ridiculous level of holiday cheer and consumption the popular culture calls us to?
American theologian Howard Thurman wrote something years ago entitled, “Work of Christmas Begins.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
Then the work of Christmas begins.
Instead of thinking about the new year ahead, let’s get back to Christmas. We should never have left. Let’s focus less on resolutions we make today and more on those Jesus made 2000 years ago.
That's the kind of Christmas we can celebrate for twelve days. And a whole lot longer.