Sandra Richter has claimed that Christians often speak Biblish. Maybe you know what she means- biblical words or phrases that are used extensively, but which inattention or presumption has turned into a sort of malleable gibberish. ‘Redemption, salvation, kingdom of heaven’ or ‘Christ’ might be a few examples.
We know what these words mean…sorta… to us, but we’ve lost a solid appreciation of what they must have meant to those who first used them in the service of the gospel.
As heirs of the catholic faith, we also know that our proclamation extends beyond the realm of ideas and words.. We insist that our bodies matter. We speak with gestures, vestments and celebrations, too. The approaching festival of ‘The Word made flesh’ is the great affirmation of that, but this physical and ritualistic ’speaking’ is yet another opportunity for precious and essential realities to slide into the realm of sentimental vagueness.
This past week the world around us, in its quest to purchase the good life, entered into a shallow Biblish version of our ancient holy days. Knowing nothing of Advent (having rejected with conviction the waiting that Advent implies), she moved directly from a day of expressing thankfulness for gifts (with a studied avoidance of any mention of the Giver), to a black day devoted to buying and then on to weeks of hurried and exhausting consumption.
Of course as those who first set Christmas in her privileged place, the church is unsatisfied with such an account. Our problem isn’t with the gifts or the feasting. What better time to give stuff, than the feast day that celebrates God becoming stuff? Rather the problem is found in the way the season has been collapsed into the mere glorification of family, giving and presents. Each of these is an important image of our God. Each ought to be celebrated, but grasped apart from him, they become demonic idols or sad memories that can only and inevitably slip away from us, forever.
The world’s version of Christmas is sad not because it affirms families roasting chestnuts, but because in going no further, it has no way of finally holding on to those precious people. It can only be a sentimental distraction from the world of death we live in. It comes out of nowhere, and has nowhere to go. It is without hope. It is the most wonderful time of the year. Period.
In contrast, this past Sunday Western Christians began again to proclaim our account of the history of the world. Advent marks the new year for us. It begins where our God found us in his mercy- needy, guilty and longing for the world to be once again, the way it was meant to be. It waits and hopes for Christmas, for Easter, for the final Coming of our God, when all things will be well.
Advent makes gospel sense of Christmas. It protects it from sentimentality (as Dr.McClay has reminded us elsewhere) by keeping death, Satan and hope in Christmas.
We are reminded of Satan’s hateful power and the blessings that bring it to an end- far as the curse is found- in our carols, if we pay attention to them. It can be seen by avoiding a Biblish view of our traditions- by seeing them through the eyes of those who gave them to us, people who lived in a very different world than ours. Its all there in the significance of candles pushing the terror of a medieval night away. It can be seen in greenery hung in mockery of gray bleakness and short days. Its there in the killing cold of winter kept at bay by roaring fires placed against thin walls, and in food that is extravagant because it is out of place during the annual famine that comes with frozen ground and scavenging wolves.
We long for Emmanuel because the world is broken. May God grant that we at Redeemer celebrate a Christian Christmas. May we learn Advent’s lesson that not only should our feasting be Merry and Bright; it must always be hopeful… with an eye to the east and the certain proclamation that ‘Christ will come again!’