Lately, a lot of my thoughts have turned to what’s going on with Christianity these days. It seems like the faith I knew as a child is pretty much over, and many of the people who are still willing to claim the name “Christian” are doing so in a very different way than they used to. It’s pretty easy to come up with an explanation why this has happened, or, more specifically, “where we went wrong.”
We’ve allowed the Church to become a political pawn. We’ve become hidebound and increasingly irrelevant to the “real” world. We’ve adopted and displayed a talent for hatred, prejudice, and exclusion that would make even Satan blush. We’ve made elaborate promises for all the things that God is going to do for people, and they didn’t pan out to those people’s satisfaction. We’ve fought among ourselves to the point where no one wants to be around us any more. You can choose from any of these, and more, but I want to add another “symptom” to the list: We have lost sight of many of the things that churches are supposed to be doing in the first place, and, in the process, have lost touch with many of the more meaningful aspects of the heritage that we were given (warts and all) from the people who came before us.
Look at Advent, for instance. This is a season that is extremely rich with symbols and rituals from thousands of years of our Christian heritage, yet it’s often neglected as “those last few weeks before Christmas,” as opposed to a time to participate in the grand pageant and anticipation of a celebration of Christ’s birth. I love the description on the old “Rugrats” cartoon, where they say “It’s that season between Christmas and misgiving….” At least they sort of know the time of year, and that’s a lot more than most people seem to know. A lot of churches still put up a Christmas (and sometimes even a Chrismon) tree and other festive greenery. Some of them even hang banners, light the proper candles on the Wreath, and talk openly about the meaning of the season and its capacity to increase the depth of our Christmas experience. Unfortunately, churches that do that kind of thing seem few and far between. Growing up a Southern Baptist, I hadn’t even heard of most of that stuff until after seminary.
And Christmastide? Fuggedaboudit! If more than one in 4 people in most congregations knows what the 12 days of Christmas are, or even know the word “Epiphany,” I’d be shocked. I’d even be pretty surprised if many of the folks reading this know what the term “guadete” means (hint: it has something to do with the candle we’re going to light this weekend). I admit hat I’m picky about these kinds of tings. Now that I’ve been exposed to the fact that Christians have a heritage that goes back more than 200 years, I often worry about seasonal symbols and colors, and i feel like my church seasons are somewhat diminished when we get them wrong. Yes, I still suspect that they once wore red stoles on Easter just to get on my nerves, but the point in all this is that there is often a lot more to church and the experience of Christian community than we’ve been letting on, and we’re all the worse for it.
So, we are a people wandering int he wilderness. We had some guideposts, but we’ve accepted some cheap substitutes in their place. As a Baptist, I’ve seen firsthand Horace Bushnell’s observation that we’re all about getting people to that moment when they come down the aisle, but put precious little about what they’re supposed to do after they have done so. I think we have done the same with Christmas, as if the days leading up to it no longer matter, and after it’s over, it’s time to take down the tree and wait until next year. It’s like all our spiritual “chips” are placed on number 25 on the calendar, and it’s become an “all or nothing” date for us.
So if we are shorting ourselves in this way, I have to wonder what we’re doing for everyone else? How do we, with integrity, invite people to a Christian community that doesn’t even recognize its own heritage? How do we invite people to participate in a story that we ourselves neither know nor truly embrace? This year, if we’re still so jaded as think that the rest of the world owes it to us to celebrate Christmas, might we at least stop and ask ourselves how much Christmas we really want to have?