Reconsidering Christmas

An article I wrote in the Montreal Gazette – a decade ago!

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Each year at Christmas time my family engages in an act of resistance, in an act that cuts against the grain of contemporary culture. Our act of resistance consists in this: setting up a nativity scene in our home.

Our daughter, especially, enjoys removing each porcelain figure from its bubble-wrap envelope and placing it in the wooden stable. There are Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, a few sheep, and, of course, the child in the manger. In setting up the nativity scene, we usually read the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel, and as we come to each character in the story our daughter will pick up the appropriate figure from the scene. She thinks Jesus looks like a little girl. To conclude our familial act of resistance, we sing Away in a Manger.

In its own right, setting up a nativity scene seems an insignificant gesture. In our home, however, it is an act of resistance against the largely post-Christian Christmas that is celebrated in Canada today. Even where traces of the traditional Christian holiday remain, the story of Jesus is almost completely overshadowed. And while the average Canadian might see this transformation of Christmas as something of a curiosity, for Christians it represents a predicament. We face the challenge of preserving the message and worship of Jesus in a society that lives with the remnants of Christmas but does not acknowledge his place at the heart of the holiday. Continue reading

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convenient pieties — holding Christ at arm’s length

King Ahaz of Judah has a problem.

Actually, King Ahaz of Judah has a number of problems. But the most pressing problem is that two neighbouring nations are threatening war against him. The northern kingdom of Israel, under King Pekah, and the neighbouring nation of Syria under King Rezin have made an alliance and are threatening to attack. It is no idle threat. We read in Isaiah chapter 7 that when they heard about this military threat, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

King Ahaz and the people of Judah are afraid. King Ahaz is not confident in the strength of his own forces. He’s not confident in the capacity of his soldiers to repel this military assault. He is deeply fearful that this will mean death and destruction and defeat for himself and for Judah. “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

Into the middle of all of this comes Isaiah the prophet. And he comes with a word of challenge and a word of warning. His message from God to Ahaz is this: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” Continue reading

Spend Less – Getting Christmas Right

As we continue to make our way through the season of Advent, and as we approach the celebration of Christmas, we are sticking with the four themes of our Advent Conspiracy. In this season we are invited (or even commanded) to do the following:

Worship Fully       Spend Less        Give more        Love all

This is week two of Advent, and so this morning we are looking at this invitation and command to spend less. In this season of hopeful waiting, as we approach and celebrate the birth of Christ, we are invited and commanded to not pull out our credit card as often as we might at this time of the year.

Of course the big question for us is why? Why spend less? Presumably this invitation and command is offered as an answer to some problem. The creators of the Advent Conspiracy looked at their own lives and at the culture around us and decided we needed to hear this message: Spend Less.

But what is the problem to which spending less is the answer? Our first thought might be that spending less is an answer to the problem of greed. We should spend less because we aren’t supposed to be greedy. This is the season of Scrooge, isn’t it, when we are reminded that greediness, and avarice, and acquisitiveness are contrary to the message of Christmas. And after all, ours is an age that has produced the ubiquitous self-storage facilities – where people keep all of the stuff they don’t have any more room for in their houses. Ours is an age that has some of the largest homes in all of history. Our is an age that sees such a contrast between the number of things possessed by the man and the huge number of things possessed by the 1%. (And remember that we in the west are part of the 1% globally speaking…) Continue reading

Representing Advent and Christmas

I am by no means an artist. In fact it’s only in the past number of months that I’ve begun putting pencil to paper – that I’ve begun taking baby steps in trying to understand how to use shading, lines and different pencils (2B 4b HB 6H) in service of an idea or image. And aside from being a total novice, I don’t exactly have a lot of time on my hands for drawing. Though I do find it a soul-nourishing way to make myself slow down for a moment, to reflect on life and its meaning.

Earlier this Fall the Presbyterian Record opened its annual art competition for the December issue of the magazine. I took the competition (and the reality of a deadline!) as a source of motivation to create something. It was an opportunity to think about how I would represent some aspect of Christmas. The end result is the pencil drawing, below, which I have also put through a “sepia” filter in iPhoto.

pensive smallerLike many within the church I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Christmas. On the one hand I have beautiful childhood memories of Christmas – of trees and lights and family celebrations. And even today I have a kind of delight  in aspects of the season. And yet beneath these positive aspects of memory and celebration is a deep frustration with the way Christmas (Advent is essentially bypassed!) has become a saccharine and tinsel-strewn affair of little or no substance. Worse, perhaps, the church often caters to this indulgent and superficial approach to the season, which means that our representation and celebration of Christmas is not as rich as it could and should be.

In submitting my own drawing to The Record, I had no sense this was a great piece of art or that it had any chance of making the cover of the magazine. It’s not, and it didn’t! The piece absolutely belongs in the small little corner they found for it toward the back pages. Continue reading