I love the Christmas season. A quick glance at my music library reveals 56 different artists and 1.2 days of continuous Christmas music. Oh, and most of this music is old. I’m not a fan of most contemporary Christmas music. I like Tchaikovsky and the Boston Pops. My favorite Christmas artist is Bing Crosby though, and I’m sure that a big part of this is due to my deep, DEEP sense of nostalgia. I grew up listening to Bing with my grandparents (who were actual Christmas elves). Like most families, we have our own Christmas traditions that go back many years, and every time we re-enact them, I feel a meaningful connection with family members who are no longer with us. “Christmas in Killarney” seems to bring my Irish grandfather right back (?) from heaven into the room with me…
Of course, Christmas is about more than music. Certain routines, foods, decorations, and movies are an integral part of making Christmas feel like Christmas. This is because traditions are a crucial part of what it means to be human. They combine some sort of waiting (Christmas music wouldn’t be special if we listened to it throughout the year) AND some significant repetition. If you didn’t repeat it, it wouldn’t be a tradition.
But “tradition” is not an ultimate good. Part of being human – alive! – is this sense of being dynamic and flexible. Corpses are stiff. When tradition becomes an absolute that cannot be touched under any circumstances, I think we need to consider that rather than making us human, these traditions are actually diminishing our humanity. And as followers of Jesus, we live under the banner of self-denial and losing our lives in order to find them. These commands certainly leave little room for our insistence on getting our way (as great as that way may really be!).
This year Christmas falls on a Sunday. And for months now I’ve been thinking and praying about our worship schedule. I’ve been given advance notice by some folks: don’t expect us to show up. Hmm… Will you give me a moment to speak to this, maybe a bit “pastorally”? I, of all people, can appreciate the fact that a worship service on Christmas is both inconvenient and a threat to long-standing family traditions, but I think this odd calendar clash is actually a gift to all of us. It’s a gift on at least three levels:
1 – it challenges us to consider our own mindset / Is Jesus truly the reason for the season, as the cliché goes? Or is our enjoyment of family, friends, and personal traditions the reason for the season? If Jesus is truly at the center of our celebration, how does it honor him to let our routine keep us away from Sunday worship? I heard one person say it this way: if I invited you to my house for a party on my birthday, what kind of sense would it make for you to then go to someone else’s house to celebrate it? If you’ve ever been willing to miss a Sunday service for someone’s birthday party (it’s own issue right there), please note that this Sunday’s service IS Christ’s birthday party! The rationale for missing that is difficult to grasp, especially when the one thing Jesus wants, is unity among his followers.
2 – it reminds our families that we’re not the center of the universe / This is a teaching opportunity for parents! This is when we look our kids right in the eyes and say, “Just about every other year we celebrate Christmas _____________ (enter whatever traditions you have), but every five or six years we don’t do what we normally do – we do something special to honor Jesus!” Our culture has often shown disdain and disrespect for the nuclear family, but the appropriate response to this is not narcissism. As precious as they are, our families must not be the center, and we all need to be reminded of this fact. This is how we teach our older kids about central Kingdom-values of self-denial and preferring others, that it indeed is better to give (up our preferences) than to get (our way).
3 – it makes our traditions that much more precious / This is sort of like “fasting” our holiday traditions. While no expert on fasting (enter profound sense of irony here), I can say this much: when I’ve fasted even one meal, that first meal “back” is absolutely delightful! And it can be food eaten out of a paper bag that was thrown at me from a drive-thru window. In colloquial terms, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Every 5-6 years we have an opportunity to offer up our good, precious Christmas traditions as a “living sacrifice” and I have every confidence that the Lord will gladly give them back to us, richer than ever before!
Let me close simply by saying, this is an opportunity – not an obligation! It’s opportunity to be more human, more dynamic, more Christ-like and mature. This can be instructive to your kids and positively shape the culture in your home (wouldn’t it be nice if there was less insistence in getting our way in our families?). We’ve scheduled the service late enough so that everyone can get up, open presents and have breakfast before they leave the house. I’m also working on a service that will be for the whole family – only one hour, with carols, a message for the kids, and maybe a surprise or two… Join us! It’s not like we’re taking Christmas way. I’m challenging you to be flexible and arrange your life around your worship of Jesus. This worship begins with your willingness to let go of your traditions, and in the process, I think you’ll find yourself more fully human than ever!