Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holiday Malaise and the Ordinary Holiness of the Reason for the Season

John 1.14

The radio has constantly been on at our house lately, blaring holiday cheer into my ears. One song wails, over and over and over and over, quite literally like a broken record:
Have a holly jolly Christmas
And in case you didn't hear
Oh by golly have a holly jolly Christmas
This year.
Well, I did hear. I've heard about a hundred thousand times. This year alone. I've been hearing since before Thanksgiving. "Have a holly jolly Christmas." Don't tell me what kind of Christmas to have! Bah-humbug. I'm being a little silly, of course, but it's true that I've got a sense of holiday malaise, "a vague feeling of discomfort, one that cannot be pinned down but is often sensed as 'just not right'" (reference).

Clearly, as has been said ("many times in many ways"), we've lost the "reason for the season." But I don't think that the people with the Jesus-Is-the-Reason-for-the-Season Yard Signs have really got the "reason" down either. Both the signs (which seem more political than spiritual) and the "removal" of Christ from Christmas that the signs protest are, as Scott Cairns puts it, "symptoms" of a larger missing-of-the-point (see his poem "Advent").

What we've missed, I think, is not the splendor of the holiday--the Star in the East, the singing choirs of angels, and so forth--but the ordinary holiness that is, at the same time as the splendor, also part of the reason for the season. The ordinary day-to-day kind of holiness is easy to lose track of in all the bright lights. The holiness of the ordinary days is often barely visible, like the moon or a star barely visible through the clouds (in Cairns' metaphors). But, of course, the strength of the moon to pull the oceans and the awesome firepower of the stars reaching here from so many million miles away are not diminished because we do not notice them. So, God here is all around us, omnipresent--even in the air we breathe.


The version of the Christmas story that I prefer comes from the Gospel of John (verse 14):
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (KJV)
Another version puts it this way:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message)
Most literally, the passage could be translated from the Greek in this way:
The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
This version of the Christmas story emphasizes the ordinariness of Christmas. John even makes quite a point of the fact that people did not even recognize that Christ was the Son of God (see verse 10) because he was so ordinary (see also, Isaiah 53.2). For many, the coming of Christ to earth as a cute little baby means that we can go to heaven. But if this is all that we get, we're missing at least half the story. The coming of Christ as a baby who cried at night, who spit up, who pooped in his diaper, who caught the cold, and on and on, as any other human baby, means something too. By becoming an ordinary person in an ordinary town, breathing ordinary air and eating ordinary food--Jesus Christ sanctified or made holy the ordinary.


The Oxford English Dictionary describes a holiday or, more specifically, a "Holy-Day" as "a day consecrated or set apart for religious observance, usually in commemoration of some sacred person or event." It also describes the term "Holy" as meaning "kept . . . from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance." Part of what has "eluded us," as Scott Carins puts it, is the understanding that a big part of the whole meaning of the Christmas story is precisely to turn these definitions on their heads. As the life of Christ shows us, all days are equally "holy." And as the subsequent "sending" of the Holy Spirit shows us, holy days are meant for the present, not meant to merely be commemorative. Religious use--or at least, true spiritual use--is not any different from "ordinary use." When, in John's Christmas story, people failed to recognize their creator, it wasn't because they were blind to seeing the Spirit in the rare-supernaturally-fantastic, it was because they were blind to seeing the Spirit in the most-of-the-time-mostly-ordinary.

Often, the way holidays are celebrated, inside and outside the church, reinforces attitudes that cause us to miss this so important part of the story. This, I believe, contributes to the  holiday malaise that some of us share. But all certainly is not lost. We still can use the very simple and precious symbols of Christmas--the manger, the shepherds, the teenage girl, even the tax season--to remind ourselves to live every day as a "holy-day," understood differently, to live every moment with an awareness of the most-often-ordinariness of the holy omnipresence of God.


RC said...

Paul, thank you sharing these timely insights during this "holiday" season. They mean a lot to me, and they strengthen and encourage me to "remind [myself] to live every day as a 'holy-day' live every moment with an awareness of the most-often-ordinariness of the holy omnipresence of God." May we grow in our ability to relate to God, one another, and all of reality in this way.

Rehoboth said...

Thank you, Paul. We lose so much when we forget this. The dichotomy of "holy" vs. "secular" bothers me. I've seen this become a church where the only "holy" things that are done are church-related.

It's easy to fall into the trap of "these activities are what consist of serving God, those activities are not." It fragments our lives when Jesus wants us to be "wholly" aware of the holiness of all of life.

Bill said...

wonderful balance and perspective on Christmas (or as I prefer Xmas, since that puts the cross into Christmas). In reading a devotional by Andrew Murray on the book of Ephesians I see some parallels. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit is our part not to be too distracted and overwhelmed by all the celebration and busyness. Be filled with the Holy Spirit is a passive receiving which comes from the reflective, contemplative approach. Perhaps it's too much of a stretch but your post brought this balance to mind.

living stones said...

Paul, I deeply appreciate being reminded that God is very much a part of my regular everydayness, and I'm working on my dance steps--practicing being more aware of His presence and action right here, right now and moving with him in harmony. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection--Anna

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