For many years, now, I’ve been one of those people who is notoriously cranky about the commercialization of Christmas. I believe we’ve turned what ought to be a sacred holiday into an excuse to spend a lot of money – money that we often have to borrow. On top of that, we place unreasonable expectations on the holiday aspect of the season that it can never meet. The Norman Rockwell Christmas doesn’t exist, but people feel obliged to try and make it happen every year (often, more than once in order to avoid offending family members) regardless of how much stress it creates or how forced it feels.
Having said that, there is something that I am coming to appreciate about the way our culture has embraced the Advent and Christmas season: its theme. If you ask someone – anyone – to tell you what the themes of the season are, you will get two things:
- Hope for the World (mostly an Advent-related theme)
- Peace on Earth (mostly a Christmas-related theme)
The thing that makes these two themes so appealing to me is that they are simultaneously material and universal. By material, I mean that they focus on the needs, trials, and struggles of those who inhabit our world in the here and now. They are not concerned with abstract atonement theories, or what might or might not happen to people in some ethereal realm. When these themes are in focus, salvation is something that happens to our world. It is something that addresses the needs that show up on the evening news and your home page every day.
I also love the Advent/Christmas “message” because it is universal. One of the great tensions of scripture rests between texts that seem to limit God’s salvation (for example, “No man comes to the father but by me…” in John, or “Narrow is the way that leads to salvation, and few there be that find it” in Matthew) and those which seem to espouse a universal salvation (God as “the savior of all men” in 1 Tim 4:10). Orthodox Christianity has long downplayed the universal texts in favor of the limited ones, but the universal ones continue to intrigue me, if for no other reason than because they seem to fit more closely with the character and nature of God, as it is portrayed in the New Testament.
At Christmastime, it feels as if we are unleashing, for a short time, the idea of universal salvation. The Christ child, we proclaim, brings hope for all of us – not just the few who fall within the orthodox Christian tradition. Thus, in the Christmas Eve Eucharist at my Church, my pastors will invite “all who seek to live in peace” to join in the feast. There are no borders to this type of Christianity. It reaches out to all.
And that, of all strange things, is why I feel myself a little less grumpy about Advent and Christmas each year. For a short time, the central message of Christianity seems to “fit” a little more than it does for the rest of the year.