The Prophetic Voice of South Park on the Meaning of Christmas

 
The Spirit of Christmas (short film)
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Sometimes, I think we get paralyzed because there are so many good reasons to change that we’re paralyzed and overwhelmed by them.  We just cruise along on auto-pilot, heading straight into the side of a mountain.

Every year around this time I come to terms with the idea that there must be something we can do differently.  The holidays, for so many of us, is such a mockery of what it should be… or, at best, there are so many good things about Christmas, so much emotional black mail around bucking the system, that we’re worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and missing out.

The interesting thing is that it’s not like I come back to the same reasons to change every year.  As I think about these things for longer, I actually continue to find more and more reasons to change the way I do things.  And yet… I don’t actually do much to change.

This year, I’m working on being explicit about what the problems and solutions are.  I hope I’m not coming across as a grouch.  The dilemna with things like this is that if I wait until after Christmas, while it’s true that I won’t look like a grump, I also will be lacking in urgency.  This urgency will be lacking #1) because I won’t at that point be feeling it, I won’t be writing from the middle of Holiday Crazy Town and #2) I will be further away from the memories of just how backwards things have become.

My goal, for reasons I still am going to defer explaining, is to list 12 issues, problems, and solutions.  In this post, I mentioned the first four.

With no further ado, here is one I would like to add today:

#5) Christmas has become an act of idolatry. 

I’m not complaining about how the Christmas Tree tradition started with the Druids, or about how the December 25th day comes from the Pagans.  I believe that there is an issue that runs much deeper than these things.

The Jesus that I follow and worship is a God of reversals, a God of change, a God of redemption at the deepest level of things.  He is a judo-master, in some metaphysical way.  He reverses things and turns them on their head.  He tears our preconceptions inside out.  He infiltrates the systems of the world and defeats them in a much more thorough way than anybody ever could have envisioned. 

The Christmas-Jesus has become a hood ornament for the world he lives in.  He’s been tamed, simplified, and stripped down.  I have this imag of robber-barons, like the monopoly guy, placing a bit in his mouth and a yoke across their shoulders, saddling him to a cart of material goods.  The robber-barons, metaphorically speaking, are not necesarily those with a lot of money.  They are those who do not recognize that they are poor in spirit because their love of money has blinded them.  (Contrary to the nearly omni-present misquoting, the bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  And the robber-barons going after Jesus in my little image, some of them have lots of money, some of them have no money. What they have in common is their love of money.)

I know that Santa Claus has become the most obvious symbol of Christmas materialism.  But I don’t think the dualistic thing we’ve created helps much.

What we now have is really 2 Christmases to choose from.  Their is a secular Christmas featuring Santa Claus.  And a spiritual Christmas featuring Jesus.  With it’s characteristic insight, South Park has caputred this well with it’s frequent pitting of Santa Claus against Jesus in Christmas episodes.  I hope you won’t be too annoyed with me if I go so far as to call the sometimes-obscene show prophetic.

One of the more recent Christmas episodes features Santa Claus getting shot down over Iraq and Jesus going in to rescue him.  The two figures here are shown to be allies after all.  I won’t go so far as to suggest it was intentional.  But I do believe that this picture is instructive.

The Setting up of this dualistic Christmas might have been well intentioned.    But it isn’t good. Much in the same way that we save one day a week for acting holy, we save all of our Chrismas holiness for Jesus Christmas, and then go act on all our greedy desires through the secular Christmas.

I’m not saying that we should stop all the Santa Claus imagery.  I’m not saying that the Christians who run around and expect everone to start celebrating the holiday like them are right.

I am saying that we ought to turn our critical eyes inward.  Are we celebrating our Christmas in a manner consistent with God’s ways?  It’s not enough to put a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” sign in the window.  The question we really need to explore is the question: are we trying to have our cake and eat it too; are we trying to steal the best part of the secular holiday and just cover it all up with a gloss of Jesus?

Running around in all this, there is actually a sort-of perversion of the trinity.  The part of God The Father playbed by Santa; the part of the Holy Spirit played by the reindeer and the elves and the other magic that gets Santa all around the world, everywhere he wants to be.

If I hit my goal of 12 principles, I’ve got 7 more to go.  What do you think ought to guide our reclamation of Christmas?

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Entering into the world

English: The Sarejevo Hagadah, 15th century Sp...
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It’s so easy to let familiarity breed a laxadasical attitude.  People who live with gorgeous views tend to stop seeing them.  Those of us who know amazing people tend to take them for granted.  It seems to me that the very rich probably don’t notice the wealth around them.  And probably somewhere, there’s a person sitting in a third world country thinking that a guy like me doesn’t have a clue how amazing it is to always have a full belly, to live with antiobiotics and electrical lights, to recieve a free education, to experience freedom of religion and expression.  That person who doesn’t have any of those things, who might want to judge me for how much I don’t appreciate so many of those things… he’d be kind-of right to judge me for this.

There are truths about the world that should seem fundamentally wierd but we slowly stop noticing: apparently solid things are over 99% empty space; obects never actually touch eachother, they just interact with negative electrical charges of the elctrons; some trees are centuries old; light from stars that reach us at night left thier points of orgin milenia ago.

Similarly, there are things about my faith that should boggle my mind.  In a way, I become immune to their wierdness by thinking about them too much.  But in some other way, the real problem is that I stop thinking on them.  I kind process some information, I can’t wrap my brain around it, so I just give up and go about my daily existence.

The facts of Jesus’ birth certainly fit this.  The author of space-time and everything in it; the originator of peace and the source of all goodness, he somehow managed to squeeze all that he is into a little bitty flawed human, living in a fallen world.  This human was born the lowest of the low, in the world’s eyes.  Even though his mom was ready to give birth no one had enough mercy to even put her up with the other people.  This God was born in a nasty, smelly barn.

His mission on Earth was not to gather power in the world’s eyes.  His life is a testament to the fact that the world’s power is meaningless.  He died not through a show of force but a sacrifice of love.

It just doesn’t make any sense, when we look at this through the world’s eyes.

And through the eyes that Jesus’ contemporaries had?  Well, sometimes, I wonder if God didn’t set certain aspects of Judaism up just to mess with their heads.  Not in a malicious way, but I have to wonder if he didn’t have just a bit of a smile on his lips when he set the whole thing up.

God taught the people that he was so far above them.  To see his face would kill a person.   To interact with him for extended periods left Moses’ face glowing.   When he took up residence in the Arc of the Tabernacle, he visited only one person only once a year.   He was a distant God, far above them.

Yet God told them that they’d set apart.  He even gave them rituals for making themselves presentable to him through sacrifice of livestock that they otherwise would have enjoyed for themselves; it was only the best and healthiest that was worthy of putting themselves in a standing that they could come anywhere near approaching God.  There was an emphasis on man’s fallen nature, a history of even the Jews being unworthy, and a borderline obsession with purity-cleanliness.

Always the idea was that they might temporarily elevate themselves.  God was only visited on God’s terms.  The very idea that God might lower himself to their filthy level must have been nearly unthinkable.

And later, Jesus would go on to be equally scandelous.  People in general have an “ick factor” associated with dead bodies.  The Hebrews in particular had specific rules and expectations around avoiding contact with dead flesh and bodily fluids.

So I can only wonder what it must have been like when Jesus told them to remember him, to eat the bread as if it were his flesh, to drink the wine as if it were his blood.  But I digress.  My focus today is on God’s entry into the world in the shape of Jesus.

And the last thing I guess that I have to offer about this mind-blowing entry, is that in a way, it fits.

I realize that I’ve just babbled on and on about the manner in which Jesus didn’t fit.  And I stand by that.  But the thing is, in a different way, it fits very well.

God often enters the world in just this way: long after anybody would have expected, far mightier than we can fathom, and utterly backwards to what had been expected, turning the tables utterly on what had been the status quo.

More on that next post.

Thirteen ways of Remembering the burning of The Christmas Trees on Indian Lake

After Stevens

I.

In this Winter’s silence

Our feet crunch and the tree swishes

As we drag it across the deep frozen lake.

 

II. 

In my memory it is many different things rooted in the same event.

Flames each have this independent life

Rooted in the same burning.

 

III. 

We dragged discarded dried brown Christmas Trees

Onto Indian Lake to burn them

At the end of every Christmas Vacation.

 

IV.

If I stayed out of his way

I did not feel like a tag along kid brother

We weren’t two separate people but just brothers.

 

V.

I do not know what the most profound part of the event was

The alchemy of fire and ice and cold?

The symbolism of the years end?

The burning bush instantiated before us?

The simple danger of fire and what it could do to the very ground beneath our feet?

 

VI.

Smoke casts a shadow

On ice frosted with snow

By my boot clad feet.

I do not have the words

To say that everything is so insubstantial.

 

VII.

I think of television warnings

As I watch it go up.

These potential infernos

Sit in our living rooms throughout December

Smoldering invisibly

Waiting for my brother and I to manifest them.

 

VIII.

I know other secrets.

Like the two inches of water that will lay beneath

The smoldering snake like ruined remnants.

And the crackle whistle

Of burning and wind coming down over that frozen place.

It is all bigger than the tree.

But it is not.

 

IX.

As I look back I see suddenly that I might divide my life along this event.

There was Time before the burning of the Christmas trees.

And time after the burning of the Christmas trees.

 

X

I wonder if the people in the houses

Overlooking the place where we stood

Waking up with all manner of holiday hang over

Wondered what was going on as the flames reached up and up.

XI

 Did it bring them back to Autumn leave burnings

Childhood campfires

Ancestral cave man memories

Or just crystallize the things we’re not supposed to say about the holidays?

 

XII.

Those very same Christmas Trees are still burning on Indian Lake

Even when it is not iced over

Even across the decades.

 

XIII.

It was not a good time

Or bad.

Adjectives demean it.

That time was what it was.

We burned Christmas trees on Indian Lake.

A reality check on Christmas Eve

“Are you closing?” This middle-aged woman was asking me.  She had frizzy hair.

I looked back over my shoulder.  The lights were shut off.  The sign was shut off.  It was six PM on Christmas Eve.  It was one of those questions that you don’t want to answer because it seems to obvious for words.

“I thought maybe you’d be opened on Christmas Eve.” She said all in one breath, in the panicked way people talk whose whole worlds are on the edge of collapse.   “It’s Christmas Eve and I have no where to go.” And then she let out this sound; a moan, a sob, a laugh.  Something somewhere in between.

If this was a fiction story I would have had all the right things to say.  I stood there and looked behind her.  She stood in front of one of those newer SUV’s that kind-of looks like a minivan on steroids… It was a soccer mom car.  She looked like a soccer mom.  How did she come to be alone on Christmas Eve?

If this was a Hallmark special, if this was a story in a sermon, if this was the kind of tale that people forewarded in emails, it would have a resolution… most likely a happy ending.

But in reality I stood there paralyzed.  I tried to smile at her.  I tried to suggest the movie theater on the other side of the shopping center. 

She took a few minutes, presumably to gather herself together.  I prayed for as I watched her pull away.  I am sure that Jesus was proud of me for spending three minutes of my precious time thinking about her.  (Note sarcasm.)

I don’t know where she went, or who she was, or what her story was.  Probably I never will.

In some way I’m offering up this as blog as a confession.  I posted about how Jesus wants us to reach out.  And then I didn’t.

The event was a wake-up call.  I’d been feeling quite sorry for myself.  I have a second job and was away from my family on much of Christmas Eve.  I was annoyed with people who wandered in, 10 minutes before we closed and who mulled around the racks after closing as the 20-odd staff were wanting to get out and go home.  Truthfully, I was even resentful at the fact that we’re a one car family and that I had to be picked up like a high school kid. 

And then…. Wham!  I’m confronted with somebody who is not only alone but who is also terrified with the realization that because Barnes & Noble is closed, they have nothing to do.

I tell myself it would have been easier if she hadn’t been a woman or if I hadn’t been a man.  There are very few acts of kindness between strangers of the opposite sex that don’t look inappropriate.

And so I’ve been thinking about that, today.  Things that look inappropriate.

I’ve been counseled– probably wisely– to be careful about things that look bad.  The idea is partially that we should be on our guard from bad stuff that could happen, but also that we should be on the guard for things that are in truth innocent but look inappropriate.

I get that, I think.  But I also wonder if it’s biblical.

If a prostitute today rubbed a pastor’s feet, if a woman gave a minister a scalp masage, it would look bad.  End of story.

But Jesus allowed these things.  And he lived in a less touchy-feely, much more sexually segregated society.

And so I guess it’s a fair question, to ask “How does it look when a man and a women are in public and…”

But there’s a follow up question, a bigger one, I think.

That follow up question is this:

How does it look when a man who claims to follow Christ does nothing more than point the lonely to a movie theater?

Christmas reflections, version 2

Every year I tell myself
This is the year
That everything will fall into place.
This is the year
That there will be peace on the frosted windows of my home.
This is the year
There will be contentment in the deepest part of me.

And every year
There are just enough
Just enough
Little glimpses
Frozen moments
To give me just a glint of hope
That next year
It’ll be better.

The cynic in me
Says that I should have learned by now.
The cynic in me
Says that it’s not going to happen.
The cynic in me
Says that I am Charlie Brown
And Santa Claus himself plays the part of Lucy
Snatching the football out from before me
Every single year
Right before I kick it.

There is something bigger than cyncism.
There is something greater than consumption.
It is the very fact that we know to feel despair
That we know that
This is not how it was suppused to be
That gives me hope.

There is this eternity in our hearts.
And there was eternity,
And he was also a man
Born among us
Died among us
And he is gone now, but so close.

It is right that we remember him
With this
Happy sadness
Despair filled joy
Aching, longing contentmen.

And this all gives me hope.

And I come to this sudden understanding:
I do not love this Christmas by ignoring the despair we face
I love Christmas because of the despair we face.

Perhaps the delicious disappointments
arise from this tension this attention
we fufill so little of our potential
and yet we are enough to know that we could be so much more.

Despite all my yesterday’s promises I haven’t crawled far out of the mire
and yet I am ever so slowly crawling out of the mire.

A greatness, a nobility resides
not so much in us
as in our aspiration to greatness and nobility.

I am a gnat leaping into the darkness
With only the faint promise of the far side of the canyon
falling and leaping falling and leaping falling and leaping.
And There is this Jesus and he is
The eagle soaring across the gulf
As we are falling and leaping falling and leaping and falling and leaping
That we know to long to be him, to be with him.
This is my Christmas hope.

Holiday Reflections

Sad and lovely.

Exquisite.

It is not only in this striving for more than I am

than I have

than I think I am capeable of.

It is not only this dream, this heaven-like dream

which would, after all require utter metamorphisis

of what we are

and the lives we live

and the choices we make.

Am I ready to bask in the warmth of their love?

But it is also this right-hereness-and-nowness

A dirtiness flimsiness substanitality

It is more than a thing made precious in spite of

so much pettiness impatience and greed.

Will I be able to pretend that I basking in the warmth of their love?

Will I be able to put it all away for a few minutes?

Will the show make it real?

Will the real make it show?

It wouldn’t be wholly true

to say that it is all made precious because of

so much pettiness impatience and greed

either.

Perhaps the delicious disappointments

arise from this tension this attention

we are not what we could be

and yet we are enough to know that we could be.

Despite all my yesterday’s promises I haven’t crawled far out of the mire

and yet I am ever so slowly crawling out of the mire.

A greatness a nobility resides

not so much in us

as in our aspiration to greatness and nobility.

I am a gnat leaping into the darkness

only the faint promise of the far side of the canyon

falling and leaping falling and leaping falling and leaping.

The eagle which soars across the gulf between what is and what might be

is so much more than us,

and yet

it is not.